Coming up this week on "Beyond Scared Straight" (Thursday at 10pm on A&E) is a tour of one of the scariest jails we have visited. Located near Detroit's infamous 8 Mile Road, Oakland County Jail in Michigan is overflowing with gang members. You may recall Brandon, the disruptive teen who argued so often with the deputies that he was eventually thrown off the tour. It was certainly one of the most memorable moments of the series, and this new episode is just as thrilling.
It's been said many times before, but I'll say it again: "Beyond Scared Straight" is not a reality show. It's a documentary series. The difference? We have no influence on the process or the outcome. In fact, we don't even know what's going to happen, making it very difficult to photograph.
When we start the cameras rolling, they don't stop until the last teen is interviewed some eight hours later. We are photographing a live event that moves at lightning speed amidst the chaos of jail or prison. As the Director of Photography, I am shoulder to shoulder with the teens and a breath away from the inmates, capturing their experience through the black and white hue of my camera's viewfinder.
In 2009, Executive Producer Arnold Shapiro called and invited me to participate in the project. As a documentary filmmaker, this invitation was equivalent to Joe Montana calling to ask if I wanted to play catch. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" His 1978 Oscar-winning documentary "Scared Straight!" was incredibly influential and rattled the fabric of social discussion. It pulled back the curtain of prison, leaving those who watched affected by its singular message: "Stay out."
With that legacy at stake, playing a role in this new incarnation was both an enormous honor and a daunting responsibility. In preparation, I studied the original documentary. Although the clothes and hairstyles have changed since then, the message and approach have not. My goal was to hopefully build upon perfection. If you haven't seen the original documentary, I highly recommend that you do.
Capturing a single episode of "Beyond Scared Straight" requires an enormous amount of logistics and travel. For me, it has been an eye-opening experience to witness the daily struggle of mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles as they fight losing their kids to drugs, alcohol, and the mean streets that surround them. We have seen many tears, from old to young, while shedding some ourselves. In the end, many of these kids are really no different than our own.
In a Season Two episode, there was an at-risk girl who looked like and reminded me of my own daughter. As I captured this teen's story, my daughter was on my mind. At one point, the officers handcuffed the kids in preparation for transport into the jail. I panned my camera off the metal clasps closing around her wrists to her face, and my own tears started flowing. I couldn't see past the glass of my viewfinder. I couldn't even tell if anything was in focus.
I quickly regained my composure and continued with the long, intense, program. What happened to that girl? She graduated high school and went to college. That single day made a difference in her life. In an email we later received, her mom told us, "I have my daughter back. Thank you."
You only have to read that once to know the reason we work so hard to bring you this series.
I'm always left amazed by the personal connections the teens make with the inmates. Those quiet moments when they're sitting in cells and opening up to each other are among my favorite to cover. Those are the moments when the teens realize they are staring into mirrors. The grizzled inmate before them was once just like them. This is the moment of transition--the start of possible change. I can see it in their eyes.
As a cinematographer, I believe that our eyes are windows to our souls. Fear, happiness, anger, disdain, arrogance, realization--whatever it may be--is in the eyes. The silent message they convey is often louder and more intense than the voice itself.
At the conclusion of every jail program, we interview the teens as they exit the facility to try to learn how they have been impacted by the experience. Often, they are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It's been a long day of having to stare into a mirror and justify their behavior. It's been difficult having to endure the horrible environment that is incarceration.
Incarceration is the lowest form of human existence, and these kids experience it while exposing their personal lives and behavior for viewers to see and judge. It takes a desperate parent to want that for their child, and it takes a brave soul to endure it. I make it a point to shake each teen's hand after the final interview, saying how proud I am of them and telling them that this is the first day of the rest of their lives.
"Make it count," I tell them.
When the cameras are put away, the crew traditionally goes out to eat to decompress. We discuss the teens, anxious and hopeful that they will turn their lives around. Sometimes the producers will get a call or text from a parent saying they were just hugged or that their kid just told them they loved them. It's a great feeling. After the meal, it's back to the hotel to pack up for the next shoot.
We will tell another life story, and for me, it will be in Black and White.