Arnold Shapiro defends Beyond Scared Straight’s programs against criticism

A&E’s Scared Straight concludes its first season next Thursday, having debuted to record ratings in mid-January. Following the show’s debut, there was controversy: two of the three states featured on the show have suspended their programs, and the show and the programs it features have been criticized.

The series, which takes at-risk teenagers into prisons to see the reality of prison life, is fascinating, though after a few episodes, it sometimes feels a bit repetitive, and inmates and officials seem to frequently over-rely on scaring the kids with threats of prison rape. Two Justice Department officials wrote an op ed arguing that research shows “‘scared straight’ is not only ineffective but is potentially harmful.”

I talked to its executive producer, Arnold Shapiro, about that criticism, and also to the researcher who examined programs’ effectiveness, and the result is this Daily Beast story, in which Shapiro defends the programs and says the research doesn’t apply, though the researcher, Anthony Petrosino, told me that the data finds that they’re pretty universally ineffective.

It’s an interesting debate, though I found one of Shapiro’s arguments to be fascinating, because he says that as a filmmaker, he has better evidence than researchers did: “The only accurate studies that are actually being done on 21st-century programs are mine–are my shows,” he told me. Read the full story for more from him and a Department of Justice official.

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