During the late 1980s, the State of Virginia initiated a program, Insider Program (patterned after the Rahway New Jersey program Scared Straight) for youthful offenders, whose serious criminal records made them candidates to be certified as adults on a subsequent criminal offense.
That was the program they were selected in which to participate. The Juvenile Court System had failed in curbing their continued severe criminal conduct. They were mouthy, violent, and incorrigible, menaces to society.
Requested I was to transport these juveniles to the central Virginia State Prison, 500 Spring Street, Richmond, Virginia, which was approximately 110 miles from Fairfax County. Several Juvenile Correctional Officers supervised these offenders.
The purpose of the Insiders Program was to provide a three-hour experience to these youthful offenders, should they end up incarcerated there.
The state opened this prison in 1800, with construction completed in 1804. It was far from appearing as today’s modern prisons. It was dark, intimidating. The death chamber, with the electric chair, was located in the basement. It had been years since electrocutions were carried out.
The housing and other structures located near the prison were old as well. My father would tell me that the surrounding structures’ lights would dim when an execution took place.
While en route to the prison, the offenders were cursing, making threats, and showed no fear. They bragged, “We’re going to get into the faces of those in there, kick their A$$E$ and terrify them!” Little did they know what was in store for them; an awakening was coming their way, and that it did.
I parked near the “new inmate arrival door,” where we were greeted by a burly, powerful-looking, rough-skinned State Correctional Officer. He was probably 6’4” and weighed about 275 lbs. Obviously, this officer had been on the job for a long time and was used to dealing with new arrivals and hardened criminals. His presence, demeanor, and authoritative voice made military drill instructors look like Boy Scout troop masters. This officer was the supervisor of the participating inmates and the Insider Program.
He entered the school bus, and our passengers immediately changed their defiant attitudes to that of “we might be breathing our last breath.” You could hear a pin drop on the bus. The cultural life of the real maximum security prison was starting to set in.
After getting our youthful offenders’ attention, they were roughly ordered off the bus and walked in single file into the prison. During this march, the officer was screaming at and berating them. The officer herded them into the holding cell with orders to keep their mouths shut, and that they did. While in the holding cell, they were forcefully spoken to and indoctrinated to prison life.
While our offenders were waiting in the holding cell, we met with the officer and the four inmates, who would be “meeting” with the juveniles. The four prisoners were multiple lifers, with no chance of parole. They were murderers, rapists, with many other charges.
They had all been in prison for a long time and were the worst of the worst. They were large, rugged-looking, muscle-bound, and menacing looking in every way. They were dressed in prison attire, had combinations of long hair, cornrows, and beards, which made their appearance all the more terrifying.
They briefed us on what the program would be like, once in the presence of our offenders. Assured we were that no one would be touched; however, the offenders would not know that. The language would be threatening, harsh, and brutal, but not anything these offenders had not heard before.
The supervisor advised that young offenders, who had previously attended the program, had a 98% record of not getting into trouble again. He shared that state psychologists wanted to eliminate the program due to causing “permanent” mental trauma with the offenders. He suggested that we contact our legislators in support of the program if we believed in it.
Before adjourning for the “meet and greet” with the offenders, the floor was opened for questions, of which there were several.
There were several questions. I asked the inmates why they were doing this since they had no chance for parole. I will never forget their answer. They all replied that they wish that someone had taken an interest in them early on, which would have changed their behaviors and live an everyday productive life. They also said that maybe their participation would be in their favor for possible parole in the future.
We then adjourned to the location of the program. The room was located in the basement, a dimly lit area of the prison near the execution chamber. There were black tapestries on all walls. There were two straight backbenches in the center of the room.
There was one long bench, where our offenders would sit across from a shorter bench, which would be the seating for the “presenters.” These would be the inmates that we had previously met. The only lighting in the room was spotlights focused on the presenters. (We sat in the back of the room in regular straight back chairs.) Our offenders would not know that we were present.
They were then marched in, past the execution chamber, and seated on the long bench. The presenters then entered and sat immediately across from them. The inmates just coldly stared at them, only making eye contact with all of the offenders. Nothing was said for several moments, just their terrifying, heartless glares.
Our offenders then became aware of what to expect if they came to the big house. It wasn’t pretty, but it was to get their attention, and that it did. The inmates seemed to have the ability to stare at every offender and know where the juveniles mind was. They readily sensed if the offender was on drugs. At this time, the “meet and greet” began.
The inmates initiated a real meltdown in conversing with our youthful offenders. They would recognize someone on drugs, then get into their body space, tearing them down for coming to this program on drugs.
Every time an inmate would address an offender, the inmate would be screaming in the offender’s face. The offender had to stand straight during a verbal and violent tongue thrashing from the inmate. The inmates made a joke of the offender’s criminal wanna-bees.
The inmates violently lectured the juveniles on their lives in the big house with the big boys, along with other prison jargon. All of the offenders were males, as were the inmates. The inmates debated on which offenders would be their “wives” if they were sentenced there.
At the end of this “meet and greet,” the juveniles were like whipped dogs. Toward the end, the inmates became gentler. They provided the offenders with their telephone numbers and offered counsel if they felt that they would continue with their criminal ways. They demonstrated a real sincerity in helping the offenders abandon their illegal practices and made themselves available.
During the trip back to Fairfax, there was dead silence on the bus. I could hear a couple of offenders crying. I heard one say, “how can anyone could talk to us” as they had been talked to.
The Insiders Program was indeed canceled as suspicioned by the supervisor. Pressures by the state psychologist had succeeded in the termination of the program. I believed in the program, but only as a last resort to save youth from a life of crime and end up being in prison for life, as these inmates. I was never made aware of the impact that the Insider Program had on our offenders that day.
Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
- Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7Zu_0OMC0Y for the original documentary of Scared Straight.