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Social Dissection: 'Beyond Scared Straight'

  • People tuned in en masse on Twitter to talk about a re-run episode of the show on A&E
  • Prisoners get in the faces of troubled teens
  • Some argue scared straight programs don't work
Social Dissection: 'Beyond Scared Straight'

Each week, CNN's Jarrett Bellini identifies one topic that trended on Twitter and attempts to learn a little more about what it is and why we cared. Trends burst in and out of social media so rapidly that we wanted to give proper attention to at least one that seized our collective interest over the last seven days. This week we're digging into...

‘Beyond Scared Straight’

At 10:27 p.m. on Monday, April 9, "Beyond Scared Straight" was trending on Twitter.

Beyond Thunderdome was not.

A&E: 1

Mel Gibson: 0

On this particular night (and at this particular time) the network A&E was airing a re-run from the popular series that profiles troubled youths spending one day behind bars with real inmates to learn about the harsh realities of prison.

Basically, it’s like a really cool field trip, but with the constant debilitating fear of being shanked. Unless, of course, being shanked is your thing. In which case... it’s just a really cool field trip.

The series, which was inspired by Arnold Shapiro’s 1978 Academy Award-winning documentary Scared Straight, features different detention centers where inmates spend the better part of their day reminding at-risk teens about gang fights and forced tattoos. Which should do the trick.

Inmate“Hi, kids. I’m Bubba. Keep doing drugs and stealing stuff and you will end up here. And you will get into gang fights. And you will be tattooed. Often. By me.”

Formerly-Troubled Teen as of Three Seconds Ago“I want to go to college, now.”

The pilot episode of "Beyond Scared Straight" -- which first aired in January 2011 -- followed five teens experiencing life at the Maryland Correctional Institute at Jessup. A quick Google image search for "Jessup MD" brings up several maps, a couple of cheap motels, and some bad tattoos. Which suggests that there’s nothing particularly interesting in Jessup.

That first episode immediately sparked such viewer fascination with "Beyond Scared Straight" that A&E boasts that it “premiered as the highest-rated original series launch in the network’s history.”

Pretty amazing considering this is from the same channel that brought you such hits as "Hoarders," "Intervention," "Storage Wars," and "Lords of Body Odor."

(Actually, that last one isn’t real. But admit it: You’d watch.)

This past Monday’s Twitter-trending episode of "Beyond Scared Straight" was from season two -- which averaged 2.6 million total viewers per episode -- and was shot at Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk, Virginia. 

Remember, this was a re-run and it still managed to get people talking on Twitter. There were literally hundreds of other shows on TV! Presumably, some of them even had partial nudity.

Yet, when a frightening, toothless inmate entered the room to scream out of her tooth-hole, cable remote controls across America dropped right back on the coffee table.

“Welp, won’t be needing this for the next hour.”

And they logged on to Twitter.

So, naturally, one has to ask -- why?

Perhaps "Beyond Scared Straight" is popular because seemingly “normal” people are insatiably fascinated by terrifying, life-altering, real life situations they absolutely, positively never want to personally experience.  

Suggested new series: "Spooning with Gilbert Gottfried."

Of course, the next logical question one has to ask is whether or not these prevention programs actually work.

Many studies have shown that confronting kids with the realities of prison is ineffective and doesn’t actually scare them straight. It just scares them. In fact, several states -- including Maryland, which hosted the pilot episode -- have suspended their programs.

The argument is that they actually do more emotional harm than behavioral good.

Sort of like making your kid watch "The Silence of the Lambs" when he forgets to make his bed.

"It makes a hospital corner with its sheets or it gets the hose again."

The show does offer some follow-ups on the boys and girls they profile, but the results shared on A&E's website are inconclusive at best. Take the pilot episode for instance: While Orben has stayed out of trouble and continued his culinary training (Hurrah!), Brandon allegedly stole a car (Boooooo!).

So, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. Either way, it’s compelling TV and, clearly, people love it.

But not as much as they’ll love "Lords of Body Odor."

Thursdays, after "Spooning with Gilbert Gottfried."

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