Scared Straight: Programs & Effectiveness

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn about what constitutes a Scared Straight program. Examine the purpose of these programs and learn about whether or not they are effective in actually scaring people 'straight.'


How would you feel to have someone scream directly in your face and not be able to do anything about it? What if that same person took your belongings without your consent, and again, you couldn't respond? Well, this is a true life scenario in a Scared Straight program.

In the 1970s, a documentary film entitled 'Scared Straight' was released. This film featured a glimpse of what happened when juvenile delinquents were placed in a state prison with inmates. The inmates sought to scare the delinquents in order to deter them from a future life of crime which would lead to life imprisonment. Since this time, almost every state has created a similar Scared Straight program.

The Program

The Scared Straight program aims to deter at risk teenagers or juvenile delinquents from committing future offenses. The way the program works is to bring the at risk teenagers and juvenile delinquents directly into prisons so they can gain a first hand look at what prison is really like. The idea is to 'scare' and 'shock' the participants to such an extent that the participants will refrain from committing future crimes in order to avoid the consequence of prison.

Most states receive federal grant funding in order to have a Scared Straight program. Once funding has been accepted, the states must follow strict guidelines as to how to organize the program. Failure to adhere to these standards will result in the loss of the funding and ultimately, lead to the end of the Scared Straight program. Unless the state has its own funding for the program, the Scared Straight program will likely be terminated.

The Scared Straight programs can include a variety of scenarios for participants, but some common elements include the following:

  • interaction with inmates
  • prison tours
  • interaction with prison guards
  • exposure to harsh conditions

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