Doing time with 'Beyond Scared Straight'
A sequel to a sequel to a sequel that began 33 years ago with Arnold Shapiro's Academy Award-winning documentary, "Scared Straight!" That featured the inmate program at Rahway (now East Jersey) State, which attempted to help juvenile delinquents by scaring the hell out of them. (Follow-up docs aired 10 and 20 years later.) This series began in the Scared Straight program at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif.; then, last week, in the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup.
Along the way, we meet kids who have been involved in petty larceny, some violence, car theft, drugs and alcohol abuse. The idea is simple. As "Green Eyes," a lifer at Chowchilla explained, "It's one thing to act like a stone cold killer. It's another thing to meet a stone cold killer." In other words, this is who you're going to meet if you land inside.
MY SAY Since Shapiro's original, 1978 documentary, scared straight programs have proliferated, but so has the controversy surrounding them; even East Jersey State has abandoned its program. Reason: Some experts say they don't work, or can even make the kids worse. In a frequently cited white paper, Anthony J. Schembri, former secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, wrote, "Re- offending rates show that the Scared Straight-type intervention increases the delinquency outcomes during the follow-up period." (Something about tough kids proving they're not scared by acting out even more.)
You see no skepticism in "Beyond." No analysis. No thinking. Just a lot of truly scary people yelling at very young kids. One of them, Sahn, 13, is cornered in a toilet stall, as large tears roll down his cheeks.
But if the series actually makes some kids in the viewing audience change their lives, then Shapiro might want to revive "Scared Straight" for future generations. (Does it change viewers? Perhaps another unknown.)
BOTTOM LINE Shapiro burnishes his Oscar every 10 or so years with another "Scared Straight" doc but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the controversy. And here we go again. Yet just the slightest nod in its direction would make the stories of these tragic kids even more poignant.