By Jessica Maillard, Segment Producer
Hello, cellmates! Our fearless Executive Producer and weekly blogger, Paul Coyne, has handed me the writing reins this week so I can give our loyal viewers yet another peek behind the scenes of how each department here at "Beyond Scared Straight" works in harmony to create an episode.
Before that, let me remind you to tune in to this week's episode, set in Portsmouth, Virginia, on Thursday, April 3 at 10pm/9c on A&E! This week, Terrian, 13, is following his older brother Tahari, 16, down a similar path of fighting and stealing. Once inside the jail, they are separated and can't protect each other. Nealasia, 13, is mad at the world following the shooting death of her father, but deputies may have discovered a way to finally reach her troubled heart.
I'm what is known as a "Segment Producer" at BSS - working alongside my amazing fellow Segment Producers Gladys and Andrea, and our fantastic coordinating producer, Elizabeth.
Our job primarily is to reach out to jails, prisons, and various social agencies and meet with and schedule at-risk teens that would benefit from seeing what awaits them behind bars. We sometimes call ourselves "casting" but we do not cast the series in the traditional sense. All of the teens on our series have already been signed up for jail tours before they even know we are interested in filming at that jail. They also come from social agencies that work with the jail.
We try to meet with as many teens as possible and work with the executive producers to focus on a group of teens with different challenges, different "criminal activity" and those who might be interesting to watch as they go through this day of change.
We have one of the most unique jobs in the office because we are also the direct links to almost every other department on the show.
If the folks in the story department (who are the first to look at the footage) have a question, they're knocking on our office door first thing in the morning. If the field crew needs to know something ASAP about one of the teens they are filming with, they're calling our cell phones. We work tirelessly to make sure we get to know the kids on our series as best we can, so we can tell their story as honestly as possible.
Here's how a typical episode works for us: Once we have found a jail deterrent program that we're going to document for the series, one of the Segment Producers hops on a plane by herself and ventures out to a city thousands of miles away to start the production process. When we land, we head straight to the jail to interview the officers that run the juvenile diversion program. We also meet the inmates that have been chosen by the jail to talk some sense into the wayward teens.
I'm sure many a deputy has arched an eyebrow when they've seen myself or Andrea or Gladys walk through the doors of their facility, armed with only a pen and a notepad. We all are barely over five feet tall and have big, boisterous personalities - definitely not the type of hardened producer you might expect to work on a gritty series like ours.
In fact, I nearly thought I'd given a heart attack to officers at one jail when I showed up to interview inmates while 6 ½ months pregnant. Despite our outward appearances, we're not a frail bunch by any means. You have to be strong and resilient to establish relationships and trust with the tough deputies, inmates and families we meet.
I come away from these days with a good idea of which inmates and deputies are probably going to stand out on screen, and I convey that to the film crew, which shoots with a field producer about two weeks after I visit.
We spend the next few days meeting with delinquent teens and their frustrated parents. These are families that come from all walks of life, but they share the same burden of trying to deal with children that have taken a wrong turn. These are mothers and fathers that have exhausted all other options in attempt to help their kids get on the right path, so by the time they meet with me, they're usually more than willing to give a shot to something as seemingly unorthodox as a juvenile diversion program.
Needless to say, the teens aren't usually thrilled to find out why they are meeting with me. Most parents don't tell their kids about the Beyond Scared Straight interview until they're standing in front of me, and I'm often the one who has to break the news to them. I have to work hard to earn their trust and get them to open up. Parents are often eager to unload about everything their kid is putting them through.
One thing parents and teens have in common, even though they don't realize it, is they all feel like they don't have anyone to talk to who will listen to their side of things. I listen and promise to do whatever I can to help.
I head back to Los Angeles to meet with Paul in the office to discuss which teens would benefit from going through the jail tour the most. I'll write up a summary on each teen, detailing their "criminal" issues and the concerns of the parents. Once we narrow it down to about seven teens, I start making calls and letting families know that we want to move forward with their child.
I then start prepping families for their first interview with the film crew. Since we can't just show up at people's homes unannounced, a lot of planning goes into those shoots. We have to work around school, jobs and various other activities. We always tell the teens that what we want most is honesty. We want them to be themselves, whether they are boastful or act like they don't want us around. We want to know the real person.
While it's one thing to get a 15-year-old boy to open up to you about his marijuana use or violent temper, it's quite another to make him comfortable enough to share his story on camera with millions of viewers. Yes, they're "punks," but a lot of them ultimately admit that they do need help with getting their behavior under control.
Though the time between when the field producer starts filming the kids' interviews and the jail tour is only four or five days, plenty can still go wrong. Sometimes parents get cold feet and drop out at the last minute. Sometimes kids get busted for a crime the day before they're supposed to go through the jail tour. Sometimes folks just stop responding to our calls and aren't at home when we show up for interviews. In the face of those scenarios, we have to do some last minute scrambling to either try to fix the situation or find another teen to go through the program.
Once the tour is over, we give the kids a few weeks to really let what they learned sink in, and hopefully make some major changes. It's always interesting for us to see who changed and who didn't when we make our follow-up calls a month later. We're always so proud of the kids who really took what they learned at the jail to heart and are making an effort to be better. Other times we see teens with so much potential fall even deeper into a life of crime. It's those kids that break our hearts and we try to stay in touch with the families to see what we can continue to do to help the teens succeed.
So far, we've filmed more than sixty-five episodes since the series began. I started working on "Beyond Scared Straight" as a childless newlywed. Fast-forward to two years later, I now have a son of my own, and it's made me view our series from a whole new perspective. Every parent wants the best for their child, and when you look at your baby, you can't ever imagine a time when he won't be innocent and sweet. But kids grow up and become more independent. While some teens really do fall victim to their environment and act out accordingly, others start misbehaving for a myriad of reasons, even if they come from the most loving homes.
I think that's a big reason why our show resonates with our viewers. It doesn't matter where you live or how much money you have - we all could be in this position at some point in our lives. We root for each teen to change at the end of an episode as much as if it were our own child, because it honestly could be one day.