One day I was on facebook and came across a friend who posted a link of an episode from a show called “Beyond Scared Straight”. This show focuses on a couple out of control and at-risks youths (usually ranging from age 11-19 of all ethnicities) and exposes them to what life is like behind bars. These youths’ parents sign them up for the “Reality Check” program so it can teach them every action has its consequences; these parents feel helpless thus seek help from the program so it can shoot these youths back to reality.
This episode focuses on Oklahoma County, where the impact of gang life is tremendous on youths, hence the biggest reason why the “Reality Check” program is created. The subjects of this episode are these youths who commit violence misconduct, thefts, and drug abuse. Most of these youths lack family structure and engaged themselves with gang life to find a sense of unity and belonging. When the kids arrive at the county jail, the police officers would try to break them down mentally and physically. They would make them do pushups and run with no breaks. The police officers would expose the youths to different areas behind bars- juvenile pods, classroom, recreation yard and etc. What’s more shocking is that they would even let the prisoners out and have them ‘talk’ to the youths about their past, what they did that led them to being locked up and finally what it’s like live behind bars. Most of these youths were shocked to find out when the prisoners tell them that no one is going to come and back them up because they always thought that gangs are supposed to have each other’s backs.
The program follows up with these youths one-month later to see how the “Reality Check” program has affected them. The impact was mainly positive and many of these youths stayed away from the negative influences and change for the better. The program gave them an eye-opening experience.
While watching this show, I was reminded of the lectures and discussions we had in my other Sociology class from last semester. First, we once talked about how toughness and being ‘hard’ defines Black masculinity. Although these youths are of different ethnicities and at young age, but likewise, they are exposed to and influenced by the ideas of being tough, hard, and the ability of fighting and ‘swinging’. Many of these youths lack family structure, thus they seek it elsewhere particularly from other people and friends they associate with. However, when in jail, no matter how hard they try to be, eventually they still break down and let loose.
Second, I was also reminded of Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, where it studied the psychological effect that the mock prison had on the guards and prisoners. Similarly, although these youths are young in age, they were being treated as if they were criminals. The police officers still carried on their responsibility disregard that this is just a program. The youths on the other hand, throughout the show, showed signs of despair and anxiety. Both parties (the police officers as guards, and youths as prisoners) internalized their roles and identities even though the program was designated for a one day “incarceration” session. Likewise, every one of us also has our own role and identity. We portray them differently depending on who we are with and where we are. Deputy Lena Samilton from this episode portray this idea very well. During the program, she is seem as the strict officer in uniform, but after the program ended when she is carrying out her role as a deputy, she reaches out to Leigh (one of the youths in the program) and together they would have their basketball one-on-one.
The mock prison became the institution that created the roles of the police officers as guards and the youths as prisoners. The police officers inflicted ‘punishments’ on the youths, which influenced their behaviors and ideas. No matter how hard or tough they were before being admitted to the program, these youths still behaved and internalized their roles as prisoners. This shows how power and institution play important roles in shaping one’s behavior. After being exposed to life behind bars, these youths came to realization to their wrongful actions. According to the latest updates and follow ups, these youths also made some tremendous positive changes.
Here is the video: