Scared Straight: The True Story
The first time I entered Lansing State Penitentiary, it was with six boys all between the ages of 11 and 14. There were a total of 15 boys from four different jurisdictions. All of them had been adjudicated by the juvenile courts, which is to say that if they were over the age of seventeen, we could call them proper convicts.
Our van pulled through the front gate and into another gated area which locked us into the prison itself. At this point the young men are considered inmates and they have no idea what the day has in store. Once inside and properly greeted by both security guards and inmates, the boys filed out and into a room where they were strip-searched in nearly the same fashion that an inmate would, with the exception of a shower. They strip down to their bare skin, naked as the day they came into this world, and change into the standard jumpsuit and rubber flip-flops.
It was 7:30 in the morning, all of the probation and community corrections officers had to pass through the metal detector, sign in, and obtain proper identification that would allow us to be inside the walls of the maximum security side of the facility. I have to admit I was excited and terrified. I too had no idea what the next eight hours would bring.
Once we were checked in and made it through the penitentiary's version of locks and dams and past tower, we had to walk about the equivalent of two street blocks past the woodshop, an old cell block and maximum security yard, which was empty at this time of the morning. Conversation was sparse and barely above a whisper. Looking back now I'm certain that the chaperones were just as nervous as the delinquents were. Once we arrive at "F" cell house, the boys filed in and were strip searched again.
After the second search we moved to the basement of the cell block which had been converted into unique cells designed specifically for this program. Just across from the cells were square wire cages approximately 12x12 which were meant to replicate the cage that a super-max inmate uses for his outdoor yard time. It was very effective. It all began with inmate introductions. I wasn't sure exactly what their recruitment process was but the prison managed to bring together a group of the most hulking, intimidating men I'd ever seen and it wasn't necessarily just their size but also that the message they were carrying was massive.
The boys sat in chairs that directly faced the inmates. Guards were strategically posted at each end. This is what I like to call the, "coming to Jesus talk." It was the one chance the inmates had to verbally pound into each of these boys the truth about prison and they didn't hold anything back, age or tears be damned.
At the conclusion of the "Jesus talks" we exited F-block which was also used to house the inmates who were being kept in protective custody and we marched them to "D" cell block. This particular housing unit is where inmates begin their careers when they first arrive at the penitentiary. It's also where inmates are sent if they are "rolled" or being disciplined. If you're living in medium or minimum security and get rolled back to the D-block, it takes an average of two years just to get out of D-block and back in to maximum security general population. Most of the kids who come through the program will tell you that what made the biggest impression; what scared them the most was D-block.
There were a few distinct memories in my two years working the Scared Straight program that I recall having to remove kids from the D-block tour because they had literally peed on themselves. One other instance a young man was so scared by the D-block experience that he had diarrhea in his pants. The problem was that he wasn't in the restroom, he was walking down the 2nd floor tier while inmates were staking their claims on each of the boys as they walked by the cells.
When I started working there, I know that we never rehearsed anything or with the Max Security inmates. Everything that happened during the D-Block and Max Dining tours was real. We didn't ask them to scare the kids but they knew why the boys were there and they seemed to be on a mission to scare them so badly and instill in them a desire to never want to return. Which was also our goal.
Immediately following D-block we went to lunch which was in the maximum security dining hall. The boys had a limited amount of time to eat in an open dining area. Prison dining halls are extremely segregated and inmates in our lunchroom are used to sitting in the same place every day. We arrived at the dining hall early and the boys sat down to eat a meal that makes a school lunch look like a delicacy of fine cuisine. Within minutes, we could hear the noise of the inmates and when they realized their seats had been taken, they were quick to react. The boys had to move.
After lunch we continued through the prison. The boys had the privilege of sitting in a solitary confinement cell where they could experience the cold cement slab, single toilet and sink. The only light in the room was the tiny window cut into the massive steel door. We toured parts of minimum security and eventually made our way back to F-block. Some of the boys were put into the cages and some went into the special cells with an inmate to discuss the reasons the boys had been brought to the prison. They switched in and out so that all of the boys would get to experience the closed-in feeling of each little cage.
By the end of the day, which was 4:00 pm, the boys were changing back into their clothes in the main building. They had done their time, so to speak, and they were ready to go home. It was an experience that changed my life. So much that I asked the director if she was looking for help and she readily took me under her wing.
My job was to help teach the inmates ways to develop a relationship with the boys in a short amount of time. I addressed issues they had with interpersonal relationships and basically served as a liaison between the inmates and the boys. Most importantly, I tracked the rate of recidivism for each juvenile that attended our program. It was important to us to know whether or not what we were doing was even effective. I can't honestly say that every boy who attended the program came out as a productive citizen. After I had been with the program for several months the signs of hopelessness were more obvious. It became clear which kids were actually benefiting from the program and which boys we should clear out a cell for. The boys who had friends or relatives in prison, the ones who knew people, were giving hugs and high-fives in the max dining hall - those were the kids whose jumpsuits we put on layaway. And for the most part, we were right.
Our success rate was 85%, meaning that only 15 out of every 100 kids who came to Lansing re-offended which to us was a spectacular success. From time to time we had boys who returned to our program, receiving the "upgraded" package as opposed to the "introductory" tour. They had the great privilege of watching the rape tapes. While these videos were disgusting, grotesque and hard to watch every time they played, I think they served an important role in the program. They were a useful tool in helping those boys who were teetering on the fence to decide which side of that fence they were going to land on.
In all, it was a life changing experience. The inmates and guards were fiercely protective of me. I had a fifteen-yard barrier around me at all times. It was invisible of course, but it was there. They shared a great deal of their lives, their loss, pain and the regret they felt for what they had done. Not one of them denied the reasons why they were there and their coping methods were unique to say the very least but that's a topic for another article! The program at Lansing State Penitentiary has since been shut down due to lack of funding but the men who were the lifeblood of our success are still there doing time.
I recently found documentation stating that the state of Kansas has placed the J.A.I.L. (Scared Straight) program, "on reserve status due to the facts that 1) The operation of such programs exposes the affected agency to loss of substantial federal grant in aid funds by violating federal prohibitions against placing juvenile offenders with adult incarcerees: and 2) There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates such programs as having either no effect , or a negative effect with regard to recidivism against violent youth."
If you have ever been a part of a Scared Straight program, know someone who has attended, or even watched it on television, you might agree that the State of Kansas is grossly incorrect.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.