For the first time since this series began, Beyond Scared Straight visits New Jersey. For all those loyal BSS viewers who dream of seeing Snooki clones clash with Tony Soprano's thugs, now is your chance!
This week's episode features Samer, a cocky, confident and quick-witted Jersey thief who is pretty sure he'll be able to charm both inmates and deputies alike. His mouth is his greatest weapon and he shoots it off like he's playing a target game on the Atlantic City boardwalk. However, he never expected to run up against Sgt. Mahoney, one of the most colorful and dominant corrections officers we have ever seen.
Visiting New Jersey is, for me, a huge milestone for our series. Today, Arnold Shapiro and I share Executive Producer credit on "Beyond Scared Straight." But, it was in New Jersey, 34 years ago, that the world became introduced to the Scared Straight concept. In 1978, producer and director Arnold Shapiro brought his cameras, and 17 at-risk teens, behind the walls of Rahway State Prison, a maximum-security facility that housed the baddest of the bad - and still does.
Thumbing through Reader's Digest a few months earlier, Arnold had read an article about a unique intervention program at Rahway, which pitted inmates against teens in an eye-opening look at life behind bars. He thought it would make a worthwhile and dramatic documentary and contacted the prison, asking if there were similar programs in California, where Arnold lived and worked. He discovered that Rahway's program was the only one of its kind in the nation.
Arnold thought a film about the program might inspire other prisons to adopt the concept. Kids across the country might benefit from a film promoting the success of Rahway's "Juvenile Awareness Project."
With support from TV station KTLA in L.A., which was owned by legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry, Arnold was soon filming the graphic and terrifying experience, unlike anything he had ever experienced. He says now, "It gave me my first tension headache. I had never been inside a prison before. I was experiencing it just like the teens and it was shocking and unreal."
He knew the language and descriptions would be graphic. For audiences raised on sanitized versions of movie prisons, this would be their first real insight into what prison really meant. It was scary, filthy and dangerous. People are stabbed, raped and killed in jail. This was not "The Longest Yard" or "Stir Crazy."
One inmate in particular was the most terrifying. A mean, muscular, one-eyed killer with a huge stab wound across his stomach. You knew, meeting this guy, if he lost his temper, no amount of deputies would be able to restrain him.
How could KTLA air something with such graphic language? It was Gene Autry who decided that the real offense wasn't the language issue - it was the issue of teen crime. He bravely decided to air the film without a single curse word bleeped. When Scared Straight aired nationally, the same held true. It was groundbreaking.
Now teens all across the country would feel the impact of that terrifying day in Rahway.
I was a young teenager in Massachusetts when "Scared Straight!" aired on my local TV station. I remember being sent home with a note for my parents, informing them that there was a film airing that night that all teens should watch, even though it was graphic in nature. (You can find clips of the original film on YouTube. Check it out.)
I remember the impact of it to this day. Not only did it scare me so much I had nightmares about the one-eyed inmate (I can still see that one-eyed inmate with his stomach stab wound), it also showed me the power of documentary. I was already a film buff but until I saw "Scared Straight!," I thought documentaries were boring. Suddenly I thought that I might want to make my own documentaries one day - but never in a prison. Too scary!
The fact that I watched it a few weeks after the cops had shown up at my house probably made it more impactful to me. I had been caught throwing a rock through the window of a new house being built nearby. I never intentionally broke another window after "Scared Straight!"
"Scared Straight!" went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary that year. It was followed a year later by a fictionalized TV movie, "Scared Straight: Another Story," and follow-ups 10 years and 20 years later, tracing the successes (for the most part) of the teens from the original film. There was also an MTV special in 1999 that brought a new batch of teens into Rahway.
I've asked Arnold how he came up with the name "Scared Straight" and he says it was in his head from the day of filming. The folks distributing the show didn't like the title, saying they thought it had a "homosexual" connotation. Arnold submitted 60 alternate titles but eventually, the original is what everyone went with. Now everyone knows what "Scared Straight" means.
The term "Scared Straight" is now part of everyday conversation and it's ripe for satire. It has been said that parody is the sincerest form of flattery. The concept has been spoofed on South Park, The Office, Mad TV, Arrested Development, My Name Is Earl, Beavis and Butthead, Malcolm in the Middle, The Boondocks, The Venture Brothers and most memorably, and repeatedly, on Saturday Night Live. Betty White as a lifer? Hilarious.
Despite the spoofs, Arnold has had an illustrious career. Not only has he won an Oscar and 16 Emmys, he has also fostered the careers of hundreds of fledgling filmmakers (myself included). In fact, this December, Arnold will receive the prestigious Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, perhaps the highest honor a documentary filmmaker can receive.
All this because Arnold had a subscription to Reader's Digest.
I first worked with Arnold 22 years ago, for just two weeks, as an assistant editor on his documentary "Scared Silent," which dealt with child abuse. I never imagined that one day I would produce "Scared Straight" for a new generation, alongside the guy who started it all.
A couple years ago, aware of the rise in teen crime and gangster culture, Arnold thought it was time for a fresh take on the Scared Straight concept. Programs now existed in several dozen prisons and jails across the country. These new intervention programs are worlds away from the original one at Rahway (which has since renamed it's program Scared Straight). Today's programs include extensive counseling with the teens, so while the "scary" part of the tour breaks the teens down, the counseling part opens them up.
And, though I think a few of our current episodes surpass the drama and tension of the original, we will never surpass its impact and influence. It quite literally changed the definition of what being an inmate meant.
The biggest change Arnold sees from the teens of 1978 is the level of crime they are into today.
"Teens today are committing worse crimes," says Arnold, "They are treating their teachers and parents in ways that weren't happening a generation ago. They are more dangerous, defiant and scary. And you NEVER saw female teens acting as violent as they are today. Today there is a thin line between being a teen and becoming an inmate."
And that, dear cellmates, is what brings us back to New Jersey in 2012. This is not Jersey Shore, folks. This is real life.
The teens on this week's episode go toe-to-toe with both ferocious inmates and dominant deputies. Along with slick con artist Samer, two of the New Jersey teens encounter close family members behind bars. It is shocking and the emotion that flows, both through anger and tears, will change their lives forever.
I'm proud, and admittedly lucky, to be part of a legacy that I have so much respect for. I'm able to work on a series that strives to make a difference, to improve lives, to change the next generation for the better.
I'm doing what I set out to do when I was a teen. I now make documentaries for a living... even if I have to go to prison to do so.