Scared Straight!

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This article is about the films and juvenile rehabilitation programs. For other uses, see Scared Straight (disambiguation).
Scared Straight!
Scared Straight!.jpg
DVD Cover
Directed by Arnold Shapiro
Produced by Arnold Shapiro
Written by Arnold Shapiro
Narrated by Peter Falk
Cinematography William Moffitt
Edited by Bob Niemack
Distributed by Golden West Television
Release date
November 2, 1978
Running time
52 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Scared Straight! is a 1978 documentary directed by Arnold Shapiro. Narrated by Peter Falk, the subject of the documentary is a group of juvenile delinquents and their three-hour session with actual convicts. Filmed at Rahway State Prison, a group of inmates known as the "lifers" berate, scream at, and terrify the young offenders in an attempt to "scare them straight," (hence the film's title), so that those teenagers will avoid prison life.

The documentary aired on television in the late 1970s, uncensored; it marked the first time that the words "fuck" and "shit" were broadcast on many networks. Some broadcasters (an example being CFQC, a CTV Network affiliate in Canada) added locally produced segments in which experts discussed both the content of the documentary, and the rationale behind airing it uncensored.

The cast includes a drug dealer and counterfeit document manufacturer from Westchester County (Mikie C), a gang member from Jersey City (Jerome Watts), an arsonist and bomb builder from Bridgeport (Jon Shipiro), the son of a Mafia informant (Carlo Gallo), and a 17-year-old chop shop parts dealer and car thief from the Bronx (Jesus Rodriguez).

At film's end, the teenagers say that they have decided that they don't want to end up in jail. The film ends with a "roll call" of the teens, revealing that most were "scared straight", though a few were said to have reoffended.


The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1978.[1] It also won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Individual Achievement–Informational Program and Outstanding Informational Program


Teenagers in this documentary and the 1980 sequel, Scared Straight! Another Story, ranged from 15- to 19-year-old repeat offenders of crimes ranging from petty theft and public intoxication to gambling, counterfeiting, and racketeering.[citation needed] None of the "graduates" of the original documentary have since been convicted of a felony except for Angelo Speziale, who in 2010 was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the rape and murder of his neighbor in 1982 (after the film was made).[2] Qaadir was the only one to become a professional criminal and spend his entire adult life in prison.

Most were from the tri-state (Connecticut, New Jersey and New York) area and agreed to accept the experiment in lieu of jail time and/or probation/public service. The producers asked for a range of youth that came from poor inner-city neighborhoods to the affluent suburbs of New York City.


As a result of the film, many states introduced "scared straight" programs in an attempt to rehabilitate young delinquents.[3] However, the effectiveness of such programs has been questioned. See Criticism section below.


The Academy Film Archive preserved Scared Straight! in 2007.[4]


The original Scared Straight! was followed by Scared Straight! Another Story (1980), Scared Straight! 10 Years Later (1987), and (on MTV and UPN) Scared Straight! 20 Years Later (1999).

On January 13, 2011, A&E introduced the new series Beyond Scared Straight, executive produced by Arnold Shapiro. According to the A&E website profile for the series: "Each one-hour episode focuses on a different inmate-run program in the U.S., and follows four or five at-risk teens before they attend the program, throughout their day inside the prison, immediately afterwards, and then follows up with them one month later to see the lasting impact of the experience on their lives. Beyond Scared Straight is about transforming the lives of young people through intervention and second chances." In addition, each episode ends with updates of the teen participants since the taping of the program, citing both successes and some failures in their post-prison behavior, and unfortunate news of passings or incarcerations that happen if teens end up down this path.

On February 1, 2011, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reported that one of the graduates of the original Scared Straight! program at Rahway, Angelo Speziale, later became a convicted felon. In 2010, Speziale was convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of Michele Mika, a teenage girl who lived next door to him, and is currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life in Rahway.[2]

In Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, Speziale claimed that the Scared Straight! experience changed him,[5] although he admitted in the film that he had failed to lead a straight life. "I broke the law three times after I visited Rahway. Twice right after, still at the age of 17 and 18, and then about five years ago, I did fifteen days in the county jail for disorderly conduct." He was later arrested for shoplifting in 2005 and a DNA sample linked him to the 1982 cold case rape/murder that led to his imprisonment.[2] A New Jersey law enforcement source has confirmed that Speziale is the same person who appeared in both documentaries.[5]

On August 18, 2011, A&E premiered the second season of Beyond Scared Straight, once again in the midst of controversy. Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Governor's Office for Children and Families in Georgia, writes at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: "After becoming the highest rated program in the history of the Disney-owned (sic) A&E network, a new season of this 'reality' show returns to titillate the curious and misinformed."[6] Also, in light of the Speziale case, the Campaign for Youth Justice has petitioned A&E to cancel Beyond Scared Straight, as they claim that the show promotes "the spread of a noxious program" and may be in violation of federal law and standards set forth by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).[5]


In April 1978, James Finckenauer, a professor of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, began a test of the Scared Straight program, using a control group, something that has not been done previously.[7] His study concluded that children who attended Rahway were more likely to commit crimes than those who did not.[8]

A 2002 meta-analysis (a study that combines the results of many studies in order to see the whole picture) of the results of a number of scared straight and similar programs found that they actively increased crime rates, leading to higher re-offense rates than in control groups that did not receive the intervention.[9] In a more recent paper, the authors raise the question of why there seems to be a negative effect. They quote an evaluation from Oklahoma saying:

If one argued that a two hour visit cannot perform the miracle of deterring socially unacceptable behavior, it can also be argued that it was extremely simplistic to assert that a two hour visit can perform the miracle of causing socially unacceptable behavior.

Petrosino et al. then simply said that "Although there were many good post-hoc theories about why these programs had negative effects, the evaluations were not structured to provide the kind of mediating variables or 'causal models' necessary for an empirical response to this question in a systematic review."[10]

Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as "not only ineffective but is potentially harmful" to the kids involved. The op-ed appears in the February 1, 2011 edition of the Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson. They say that, "when it comes to our children," policymakers and parents should "follow evidence, not anecdote."[11]

In 2004 the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that each dollar spent on Scared Straight programs incurred costs of $203.51.[12]

Cultural references[edit]

Television series' Hardcastle and McCormick had an end of first season episode called "Scared Stiff" in which teenage boys were taken to a state prison to scare them out of further crimes as did Get a Life first season's "Bored Straight" episode. Married... with Children's sixth season "Rites of Passage" has Al saying how the Department of Juvenile Corrections bused some juveniles to his shoe store and made them spend over 3 hours watching Al work to show why it was so important to stay out of trouble and in school until even the most hardened punk was "crying like a baby".


  1. ^ "Scared Straight! (1978)". The New York Times. All Media Guide, LLC. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c The Record (Hackensack, NJ): "Neighbor sentenced in decades-old Ridgefield Park murder", April 1, 2010.
  3. ^ Gil Jawetz (12 September 2003). "Scared Straight!". DVD Talk. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  4. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive. 
  5. ^ a b c Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: "Scared Straight! Graduate Plays Starring Role in Cold Case Crime", February 1, 2011.
  6. ^ Vignati, Joe. "Joe Vignati On Beyond Scared Straight and the Irresponsibility of the A&E Network". Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, accessed August 19, 2011
  7. ^ Syed, Mathew (2015). Black Box Thinking. Penguin Random House. p. 162. ISBN 978-1-591-84822-6. 
  8. ^ Lilienfeld, Scott O. (March 1, 2005). "Scientifically Unsupported and Supported Interventions for Childhood Psychopathology: A Summary". Pediatrics. 115 (3): 761–764. doi:10.1542/peds.2004-1713. ISSN 0031-4005. PMID 15741383. 
  9. ^ Petrosino A, Turpin-Petrosino C, Buehler J. "Scared Straight and other juvenile awareness programs for preventing juvenile delinquency"
  10. ^ Anthony, Petrosino; Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino; Meghan E. Hollis-Peel; Julia G. Lavenberg. "Scared Straight and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency: A Systematic Review". The Campbell Collaboration: 55. doi:10.4073/csr.2013.5. 
  11. ^ Laurie O. Robinson and Jeff Slowikowski. "Scary -- and ineffective". Baltimore Sun. January 31, 2011
  12. ^ Aos, Steve; Lieb, Roxanne; Mayfield, Jim; Miller, Marna; Pennucci, Annie (September 7, 2014). Benefits and Costs of Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for Youth (PDF) (Report). Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved July 28, 2014. 

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