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Prison awareness programmes

Programmes which deter children and young people from crime by demonstrating the realities of life in prison

Estimated impact on violent crime:

HARMFUL

Evidence quality:

1 2 3 4 5

Cost:

1 2 3

Prevention Type

  • Primary
  • Secondary

Setting

  • Custody
  • School and college

Themes

  • Another chance

What is it?

Prison awareness programmes aim to deter children and young people from crime by demonstrating the difficulties of life in prison. Current or former prisoners meet children and show them what prison is like. Programmes can involve children visiting prison or prisoners visiting children in a school or community setting.

Programmes vary in the approach they take to deterrence. Some programmes, such as Scared Straight, treat participating children harshly and focus on intimidation and fear. This could involve prisoners taunting and humiliating children, or sharing graphic stories, photos and videos depicting the violence and boredom of prison life. Other programmes take an educational approach. Current or former prisoners might share their life stories, describe the choices they made that led to their imprisonment, and talk more generally about the costs of involvement in crime.

Prison awareness programmes are typically targeted interventions which work with children who are considered at risk of involvement in crime and violence. They are usually short interventions, involving no more than one prison visit or educational session.

Is it effective?

On average, prison awareness programmes do not seem to have a desirable impact on children’s involvement in crime and violence.

In fact, the research suggests they could increase the likelihood that children become involved in crime. It is important to note that the research is dominated by evaluations of programmes where children visit prisons. The best available systematic review did not find any evaluations of programmes where prisoners visited schools.

The research suggests that prison awareness programmes could increase the likelihood that children become involved in crime.

There is evidence that the approach can have a positive effect on children’s attitudes towards offending and punishment. But this did not seem to translate into actual reductions in offending.

There is some very weak evidence to suggest that evaluations which measured outcomes more than 6 months after the end of the programme found more positive effects. However, we would need to see stronger evidence of a long-term impact before it affected our overall judgement of the impact of these programmes.

How secure is the evidence?

Our confidence in the headline crime reduction estimate is high.

Our estimate is based on a high-quality and recent analysis of 12 studies which directly measured the impact on offending. We have not chosen the highest security rating because there is a lot of variation in the impact estimates provided by the included studies.

An important limitation of this analysis is that it did not find any evaluations of programmes where prisoners visited schools instead of children visiting prisons.

How can you implement it well?

Currently, the research does not give clear insights regarding the impact of different types of prison awareness programmes, such as programmes with different levels of confrontation.

How much does it cost?

On average, the cost of prison awareness programmes is likely to be low.

Costs are likely to include transporting children to and from the prison, or former prisoners to and from the school, as well as the costs of supervision. An analysis of ten programmes in the USA found an average cost of $50 per participant.

Topic summary

  • The defining feature of prison awareness programmes is that current or former prisoners try to deter children from crime by introducing them to the realities of life in prison.  
  • This summary is not relevant to all programmes that involve current or former prisoners. For example, it does not consider programmes in which people who were previously, but no longer, involved in crime become mentors to children or become involved in restorative justice.  
  • On average, prison awareness programmes have not had desirable impacts on children’s involvement in crime and violence.  
  • These programmes can have a positive effect on some intermediate outcomes, such as attitudes towards offending. However, these do not seem to translate into reductions in offending.  
  • An important limitation of the research is that there is a lack of evaluations of programmes where prisoners visited schools instead of children visiting prisons. Future research could investigate the impact of programmes in schools.  

College of Policing
Summary of the research on ‘Scared straight’ programmes from the College of Policing Crime Reduction Toolkit

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