Friday, March 2, 2012

Scared Straight, The New Jersey Prison Experiment

            “These men are gonna tell you things that are not easy to tell.  If I find any of you smiling or looking around or not paying attention, I’ll break your goddam jaw” (Tounley, 97).  This was a quote from one of the African American prisoners to the group of troubled juveniles to get them to listen.  Juvenile delinquency has long been one of the major topics discussed by lawmakers and the general public.  What is the right way to deal with troubled youth?  Should they be treated the same as adults?  What’s the best method to keep today’s children out of jail?  All these questions are full of debate and there is no one simple answer to any of them.  There have been attempts to scare juveniles into following the laws of society and the Juvenile Awareness project, also known as the Scared Straight Program, in New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison was one of them.

          “In December, 1975, a small group of inmates serving sentences of twenty-five years or more in New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison formed what they called the Lifers’ Group.  The Lifers’ Group was created in part to counteract what these inmates saw as a stereotyped, Hollywood-type image of prisons and convicts held by the general public.  This image, they felt stigmatized convicts as immoral and inhuman.  In order to dispel what they saw as a false image, the Lifers wanted to try to prove that they could be useful and worthwhile people even though locked up in a maximum-security prison.” (Finckenauer 67)  This was the start of what was later called the Juvenile Intervention Committee.
            A man by the name of Richard Rowe was the president of the Juvenile Intervention Committee and came up with the idea to bring in juveniles and show them what prison life was really like in order to scare them into staying out of trouble.  Rowe did all of this out of concern for his own then 12 year old son who he did not want to see follow in his footsteps.  Rowe was serving a double-life sentence for rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery.  This was not the first time an idea like this had been brought up; there had been college groups who would observe prisoners on tours to accomplish the same goal.  The Lifers had heard about the college students taking prison tours and thought that if it could work for them, it could work for juveniles.  And so the Lifers took the necessary steps in order to make this happen. 
            With the help of the superintendent of the prison, outside agencies, Rowe’s wife, local police chief, and juvenile court judge, the first group of juveniles came to the prison in September 1976.  Finckenauer states, “In the beginning, the plan called for admitting only one group a week.  But by January 1977, the idea had become so popular that the number of visits was increased to two a day, five days a week.  Police departments and other youth-serving agencies in New Jersey and elsewhere began clamoring to bring their kids to Rahway in order to get the “cure.” Rowe’s son was among the first to attend.” (Finckenauer, 1982)
            Finckenauer describes the experience like this, “The youngsters came into the prison, were briefed by a guard, passed through a metal detector, and then entered the interior of the prison where visitors were seldom permitted.  There some of the Lifers at first “rapped” with them as a group or on a one-to-one basis.  These rap sessions employed harsh language to discuss prison violence, including assault and murder, homosexual rape, suicide as a fact of prison life, inedible food, the impersonal atmosphere in which there is no unity among inmates, and the need to live “by the bells.”  Finally, there was a brief tour and an opportunity to view the “Hole” or solitary confinement, where, the youngsters were told, inmates might be sent for such things as violating prison rules.” (Finckenauer, 1982)
            As the program went on however, the Lifers’ took a different approach in their treatment from counseling to more of a “shock therapy.”  The Lifers changed their approach because they felt as though there were not affecting the kids in the best way possible with the softer approach.
In the end the program turned out to be a failure.  With such high expectations and original reports saying the program was a huge success everyone got caught up in this “miracle” cure for juvenile delinquency.  Stephen Morin talks about the panacea phenomenon in his book saying that, “The reported “success” led many people to believe a magic panacea for juvenile crime had been found.” (Morin, 1979)  It’s safe to conclude that scare tactics do not work as a deterrence to juvenile crime.  Statistics have shown that scared tactics only increase the chances of juvenile crime in both children with no previous criminal history and those that do.
Finckenauer, James. Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon. Englewood
 Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.

Morin, Stephen. "Criminologist Flunks Scared Straight." The Providence Journal


  1. This was a great idea! The video sent a very powerful message, especially since they were face to face with these dangerous convicts. my concern is for the safety of the juveniles since they are in such close contact with the children. I suppose that even if they had gotten into a fight with one of the inmates it still would have had a positive outcome considering the situation. The designers of the program did an excellent job selecting these inmates to speak.

  2. I like this. Its a reality check to the youth.

  3. This was a good topic, interesting to read and you had a great video. I liked how the inmates wanted to make a change and help the society by getting these troubled juveniles back on the right track. Its hard to get juveniles to listen especially because they think they can do whatever they want, I bet it failed because the information went through one ear and out the other. They had great vision, its just sad and disappointing that it became a failure since it was so popular.

  4. Great idea, i love it. To me it seems that it will work, we all talk about how education lowers recidivism, crime, delinquency, etc.. this is exactly what it is. It is educating the juvenile on how life is within a prison. It closely ties in with the shock boot camp, which i am a fan of too. And impressive for the inmates that want to do good.