A popular TV segment shows misbehaving children being escorted to a prison, where inmates and/or prison guards scream at them. Returning to the studio, the kids vow to behave better. As well as comprising child abuse in itself, such programs have uniformly been shown to have negative effects, leading to more delinquency and violence in their aftermath.

Blog Archive

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, April 6, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Abusing Kids for Fun and Profit

A popular TV segment shows misbehaving children being escorted to a prison, where inmates and/or prison guards scream at them. Returning to the studio, the kids vow to behave better. As well as comprising child abuse in itself, such programs have uniformly been shown to have negative effects, leading to more delinquency and violence in their aftermath.

I watched the April 6 Steve Wilcos Show. Wilcos is an ex-Chicago cop who earned his spurs providing security on the Jerry Springer Show. In TV land, these are excellent credentials for offering child and family therapy. On this show, he reviewed segments in which he had out-of-control teens and their families as guests.

The parents (often single mothers) accuse their children of vile behavior, and Steve jumps in on the side of the parents. I watched Steve call one fourteen-year-old a "whore." He ushered in a small, fourteen year old boy who was cursing and threatening his mother and step-father. For his part, the boy claimed the man abused him. The parents denied this, and Wilcos sided with the parents. He took the boy to the Wayne County (MI) prison.

The boy was crying when he arrived, and continued crying when he was locked in a cell as he was berated by a large, menacing prison guard. Wilcos is actually fairly gentle with the kids. The Maury Show prefers having inmates scream at and threaten children. These shows are immensely popular, as audiences cheer for the kids to be bullied into submission. And, as depicted on the programs, they invariably succeed.

The best known depiction of such programs was "Scared Straight," about the Lifers Program at the Rahway State Prison (in New Jersey). The documentary, narrated by Peter Falk, won the 1978 Academy Award to a standing ovation from Hollywood's best and brightest. The film claimed that 90+ percent of delinquent kids going through the program remained "straight," a claim which was repeated by Danny Glover in a 20-year follow-up film. Scared Straight programs became widespread throughout the U.S., as did their television counterparts. (The original Lifers Program at Rahway does not appear to be active.)

Of course, this claim is preposterous on its face. A 1982 book by Rutgers criminologist James Finckenauer, Scared Straight and the Panacea Phenomenon, found that Rahway's lifers came up with this figure by writing schools and asking whether any of the kids who attended had any further trouble - receiving no response was scored as a positive outcome. Finckenauer (who updated this book in 1999) found instead that many teens sent to the program had no delinquent records. When children who went through the program were matched with equally-delinquent controls who did not attend, the Life Program children subsequently had more delinquent and criminal behavior!

In 2003, the Cochrane Collaborative Reviews published a meta-analysis of scared-straight programs, conducted on behalf of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which published the study as a pamphlet. Combining all systematic research, this investigation determined that "the scared straight-type intervention increases the odds of offending by between 1.6 and 1.7 to 1 compared to a no-treatment control group." No research has ever found such programs to be effective: An earlier compendium of research on 500 delinquency programs for Congress listed Scared Straight under the "what does not work" category.

The Florida study was commissioned by Anthony Schembri, Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, who wrote in its foreword:

In 1981, while serving as an Inspector General in the New York City Department of Correction, I visited the nationally recognized Scared Straight Program at Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. . . . I had doubts about its potential and utility. The tears and the emotional roller coaster that the children experienced were driven by the inflated egos and the lack of empathy on the part of the inmates who were apparently using their new-found authority and power over their charges. I left Rahway with a deep sense of man's inhumanity to man, and serious doubts about the use of these techniques with youth.

Here are the five questions I would ask Steve and Maury:

  1. When your children misbehave, do you scream at them like the lifers?
  2. You don't think these children deserve to be treated the way you treat your children?
  3. How do you think these children get the way they are - do you think they were genetically programmed to be delinquents?
  4. Do you think the parents need guidance in raising these children?
  5. And you think that being screamed at one day by lifers or other inmates will permanently turn kids' lives around, even returning to the same homes and neighborhoods where they developed their problems?

Incidentally, none of these criticisms apply to Nanny 911 and Supernanny, television shows where women instructors visit homes of families with misbehaving children and systematically train the parents to change their household dynamics, including by expressing love and positive reinforcement, and administering gentle time-outs for continuing misbehavior.