I'll tell you a secret that only my very best friends know, I love reality TV! Well not all reality TV but the stories about the American experience that deliver insight into closed societies like Escaping Polygamy and Leah Rimini: Scientology and the Aftermath. Aside from those shows, I love travel shows and almost anything on HGTV. When I was younger, I loved MTV's The Real World and Cops. I can still here that infamous tune, bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do, what you gonna do when they come for you...
However, there is one show that makes me cringe, but I watch it ...sort of like how I watch Alien or Prometheus... it's the documentary series, Beyond Scared Straight on A&E. The show details an intense day long journey of troubled young people whose parents have sent them jail. The visit includes inmates and corrections officers screaming at them until they realize jail is not the place to be. Parents visit their children in jail and talk to them through phones separated by glass barriers. At the end of the day, it is up to a judge (and the consent slip) to determine if they go home or have to spend the night. Usually, the adolescents are crying and have been through enough trauma, realizing their mistakes (if only temporarily) and are apologizing profusely to their parents, professing all of their wrongs and how they will be made right.
Why do I watch this show when the only thing scarier to me than American jail is foreign jail? To think these young people would have behavior that leads them to this place is a wonder to me. In the US, there are nearly 2.3 million people in prison, and over 200k are women. As a person, passionate about public health, for me, this show sheds light into the missing stories of what happens in prison and what leads some young people on the path to incarceration. Whether or not the method of the program - one which conveys bullying from the officers and inmates, threats of beat downs and rape juxtaposed to gentler counseling sessions, to "get through" to rowdy young people is correct; it certainly shows that BOTH a shock experience coupled with mentoring from the officers can turn lives around. The officers and inmates do not coddle or mince words, the experience is a real American jail - single cell, overcrowded, locked down, terrible food, aggressive inmates, lots of handcuffs, and tough corrections officers.
Is this the right way to rehab young people gone rogue - stealing, disrespecting their parents, fighting, drinking, drug use, etc.? I don't know. One might argue that this treatment is warranted by the terror created for families dealing with these situations. Often, the family who brings the children to the jail program are mothers, usually in a single parent household. When the viewer gets a glimpse into the homes, we see families broken apart by having other relatives in jail, poverty, lack of resources and other surrounding influences such as gang violence and drug dealing.
The show crosses racial and gender barriers, but one thing seems common for most of the families: poverty. One might argue that this show targets low income families in an attempt to exploit them, but no parent wants to see their child in prison, and this program is often a last resort. Can we or should we deal with bad behavior by a visit to prison? Will this combat the long-term issues related to poverty, crime in the surrounding area, trauma, depression, and the social determinants of health? How can we do better?
In the US, the David Lynch Foundation offers meditation programs in schools to reduce stress and violence, as we know many children live in these environments of poverty, fear, and trauma. The mediation program is having a profoundly positive effect on children and school environments. Children should also have regular visits to a general practitioner (GP). A GP can identify issues of concern and refer out to psychologists and other mental health professional to provide counseling services - but, if children and parents do not have access to a GP, it's less likely that they will have access to mental health counselling. In addition, communities and law enforcement can offer second chances to offenders by creating a "continuum of care" by referring juvenile offenders to various treatment programs, but with the ability to stay connected to their family and community.
Unfortunately, second chances don't often come around like they do on Pitbulls & Parolees, another show I love, that features the Villalobos Rescue Center, where both pitbulls and parolees can have a second chance. Outside of the US, Norway's, recidivism rate is 20% compared to approximately 75% in the United States. Why? In countries, such as Norway and Rwanda, societies believe reconciliation, education and rehabilitation are superior to a revolving door of incarceration. Even after the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where some 800,000 people were slaughtered, the government realized that it did not have the capacity to incarcerate every criminal, so it began an unheard-of process of reconciliation using gacaca courts, which has ultimately led it to economic prosperity and relatively low crime rates, especially violent crime. In all countries, the path to incarceration can always be reduced. It will be interesting to see where the US falls over the next 5 to 10 years.