023 – Beyond Scared Straight, “Portsmouth County, VA”

beyond scared straight portsmouth county va

Delinquentism among inner-city youths (and youths in general) is a serious problem (I know that is not a popular position to take, but I will fight anyone who dares to disagree). It is something that I saw from a distance growing up, and something that I get a closer look at now, in my second life as an education professional. Trying to explain to a teenager the errors of their ways is one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had the joy to undertake, so I certainly understand the impulse behind shows like Beyond Scared Straight – forget trying to explain why what they’re doing is wrong; just show them what will happen if they don’t stop.

The A&E reality series is a show that (much like the Academy Award-winning documentary that inspired it – Scared Straight!) follows young trouble-makers as they are generally berated by the possible future that awaits them in prison should they continue along their chosen path. It is one of those documentary-esque TV shows that tries to be deep and meaningful. In other words, just the kind of thing I stay away from – when I watch reality TV it is sure as hell gonna have a bunch of melodrama and catfights (see: The Challenge). But I wanted to check out an episode as research for a sketch that I am working on.

The episode I watched on Hulu, “Portsmouth County, VA” concerns four young teens: Bryan, Kailyn, Jemel, and Angela. Each kid acts out in various ways, including violence, drinking and promiscuity. For the most part, their parents are at their wits’ end, so the only option they see left to them is to hand the kids over to the justice system for an afternoon. Unfortunately the problems these teens are facing run much deeper than simple behavior issues. Bryan is clearly being bullied by other students at school and seems to be looking for some way to protect himself. Jemel and Angela are classic products of incompetent parenting and neglect, though not to a tragic extreme. And Kailyn- well, Kailyn actually doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. It’s possible her main issue is that her dad married a black woman. She may actually deserve what’s going to happen to her on this episode.

But nothing really happens. At the beginning of the episode the Portsmouth County Sheriff talks about how the program changes kids’ lives, and how they often leave the facility in tears (he has a big smile on his face as he says this – I’ve never seen anyone so happy about making kids cry). That actually seems to be the main thrust of the whole thing: scream at the kids until they cry, then let them go home. It’s a little easier with the boys because the guards get rough with them, pushing them up against the bars and really letting the inmates get in their faces, but the girls seem to be untouchable (which makes a certain amount of sense in this environment). So the best they can do for Kailyn and Angela is deliver a stern lecture about STDs. Bryan and Jemel, on the other hand, end the episode in tears, just like the evil Sheriff wanted.

Is any of this effective? It’s hard to say. I couldn’t tell how much of the show was real and how much was staged, although in the strictest sense the whole thing is staged for the benefit of the kids. So even if the convicts are real prisoners (which I questioned more than once) most of the anger and rage that they display is a put-on, intended to frighten the kids. There is definitely a lack of legitimacy to the whole thing. And it sounds like the kids felt the same way. In the update at the end of the episode we learn most of the kids are back to their old ways; only Bryan seems to have made a lasting effort to change.

It is really tough to criticize a program like Scared Straight without any real alternatives. Evidence seems to indicate that Scared Straight doesn’t really work, but it is easy to see how parents get to a point where they think they have no other choice. At the very least the Portsmouth County Sheriff’s Office also does a seminar for parents while their children are being scared straight. Hopefully the adults learn a thing or two as well.

I have a vague memory of being show the original Scared Straight! documentary in middle school. I don’t think anyone in my class was into anything too dangerous at that point (though I was certainly a naive young man so who really knows), and only now do I understand that the teacher put the video on so he or she could have a chance to grade papers in peace. Regardless of my instructor’s motivation, the video did it’s job; I have never been caught committed a serious crime. If the program worked for me – clearly its target demo – maybe it can work for other kids. Unfortunately Beyond Scared Straight is not nearly entertaining- or interesting-enough to convince me to find out.

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