Halting of Md. prison-diversion program unrelated to TV series, officials say

By Don Markus
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 7:20 PM

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has suspended its diversion programs for troubled youths, a decision that officials said is not related to a recent portrayal on the A&E network show "Beyond Scared Straight."

The programs, which typically send youths into prisons with hopes of deterring them from a life of crime by having them interact with inmates, were stopped last week, said Rick Binetti, the department's director of communications.

In a Jan. 20 episode of the A&E show, set at the state's Jessup facility, an inmate threw a teenager into a bathroom to show what happens behind bars. The Herald Mail, of Hagerstown, reported Friday that the show's crew had also visited the Maryland Correctional Institute near Hagerstown to film an episode that will air Feb. 24.

Binetti said that correctional officers and youth counselors were behind the cameras in close proximity to the inmate and the teenager during the Jessup episode. The decision to suspend the programs had nothing to do with that show, he said.

"This isn't a reaction to anything," said Binetti. "The commissioner suspends programs frequently throughout the DOC even when there's nothing going wrong or there aren't any issues, which is the case with the youth program."

"Beyond Scared Straight" is a sequel to the Academy Award-winning documentary made in the late 1970s titled "Scared Straight," and it has made waves in other correctional facilities.

A similar decision was made by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said it was in reaction to an episode of the "Beyond Scared Straight" series that was filmed at one of its facilities and was aired as the season debut earlier this year.

Thornton said the episode was one of three filmed for this year's series in California, including one at a facility for female inmates. One of the episodes was filmed at San Quentin.

"It is the result of the series," Thornton said. "It's not the first time we temporarily suspended our programs to review them."

A&E did not return messages left at its New York office.

Thornton said that youth-diversion programs were temporarily suspended in California as recently as 2009 and that "we are always self-reviewing ourselves." In this instance, Thornton said that "there were some concerns raised internally."

The Jan. 11 decision in California was made to ensure that the programs "were operationally compliant with the Federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act," Thornton said. "We want to make sure these programs are consistent with our mission … of providing rehabilitative treatment and practices."

Thornton said that the department is "committed" to the programs, adding that "the expectation of these programs is that they're based in positive therapeutic counseling and intervention."

Binetti said that the decision to suspend the programs in Maryland had nothing to do with the decision in California. In fact, Binetti said that California's actions are "news to us."

Maryland Commissioner of Correction J. Michael Stouffer suspended the program "for a few weeks," Binetti said, adding that Stouffer wanted "to take a look at it to make sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to do and all the policies and procedures were being followed."

Binetti said there were no indications that anything improper had taken place. He said there are fewer than 10 such diversion programs currently operating that visit the 24 state facilities.

- Baltimore Sun

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