By Jackie Poko, Associate Producer
Hello, cellmates! As Executive Producer Paul Coyne continues to work hard putting together a very special "Best Of" episode (get your votes in!), I'm here to remind you to watch an all-new episode this Thursday, April 10th at 10pm / 9 (Central) and share a little about myself and the series.
This Thursday we return to a jail that is practically home for "Beyond Scared Straight" - Oklahoma County Detention Center. We meet a trio of siblings - Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Faith - who are pulling each other down a dangerous path of fighting, stealing, and sneaking out. Once inside the jail, another teen, Jose, who proudly smokes weed, breaks the news to an inmate that his girlfriend might be pregnant. This news came as a shock to everyone while we were filming, since he had never mentioned it to us during his interviews.
Working on "Beyond Scared Straight," I've watched so many teens be given a second chance by dedicated inmates and officers. After many of the jail tours, the teens stand before their parents and vow they will no longer be the same kids who went in. The parents, though sometimes reluctant, often offer trust and give their children a second chance to prove that they will not continue fighting, stealing, or doing whatever it was that brought them there. Ours has always been a series about second chances, for the teens, their families, and even the inmates.
This February I celebrated three years of working on this emotional and life changing documentary series. Though I now laugh about it, I sometimes think back to how I first landed my job. One January morning in 2011, I got a phone call from Executive Producer Arnold Shapiro, whom I had interviewed with to be his assistant the previous year, a job I was not hired for. Arnold phoned to say the position was open again.
When I originally interviewed with him, I made it through all the rounds, but I was ultimately his second choice. Arnold promised to keep me in mind if the position opened up in the future, and he kept that promise. He's the first Oscar and multi-Emmy-Award-winning producer to do that for me. I knew I was about to get the chance to work on something special.
One week later, I started training to be his and Executive Producer Paul Coyne's assistant. Being Arnold and Paul's assistant gave me access to all layers of the series. I did the usual assistant duties - answered phones, coordinated their schedules, proofread all outgoing correspondence, handled incoming and outgoing mail and, never to forget, that one time I picked up Paul's dry cleaning.
But I also took the chance to read everything that came across my desk - short biographies on the teens attending each program, updates from our field producers who were part of the film crew sharing how the jail tours went, notes from A&E about how to make an episode even stronger, etc. In addition, I would watch every cut of an episode and ask questions when given the opportunity.
A year later we were getting ready to start filming a new season. I was called in to meet with Arnold and Lori, our producer in charge of hiring. I immediately worried I had done something wrong. But, to my surprise, I was offered a promotion.
For several months I did two jobs - I continued being Arnold and Paul's assistant and was also an Associate Producer in the office. As an AP, I worked with our film crew to make sure they had all the filmed families and persons at the jail sign our releases, which are the legal documents giving us permission to film and show them/their home/etc. on screen.
With this position, I also got to attend every screening. Each episode takes weeks to edit. Our film crew sends back 40+ hours of footage, and our editors work hard with what's called story producers to put together a 43-minute episode. Since we pride ourselves on being a documentary series, it's important and necessary for us to portray an accurate account of what actually happened.
Our screenings happen in several phases: a rough-cut, a fine-cut, and a locked cut. I was mainly there to watch for anything we perhaps were not allowed to show because of release or copyright issues, like artwork or background people, and make sure names and subtitles were spelled correctly. The first couple of times I wasn't sure how I was going to watch and catch anything, but I quickly realized that with my photographic memory, misspellings stuck out easily. I took these screenings to watch and admire the creative minds that were working on this series.
Finally, the episode would go to our on-line house, where the picture was color-corrected - this is where it was given its "gritty" look, the audio was perfected, and we blurred anything our lawyer advised us to, like home addresses and license plates. This was also my last shot to make sure there weren't any typos.
As the series continued to change the lives of so many teens across America, A&E ordered another season. By this point, I had learned so many aspects of the show, and I was eager to go into the field and be a part of the crew that films the series, which is where I landed next as an AP.
Working in the field was an eye opening and many times emotional experience. In the ten months I spent on the road for the series, we filmed in about eight states, with close to a hundred families.
I was in charge of making sure we obtained releases from every person and location we filmed with. In the jail, this meant going into a pod of sometimes 50+ inmates. This was often chaotic since they didn't want to follow my rules of getting in an orderly line and waiting their turn to sign our paperwork, but I had the protection of an officer and our Production Manager Adam. Once or twice I was in a pod when a fight broke out, but I kept my cool.
Each city we filmed in, we first spent three days filming interviews with the kids and their families, then we had a "walk-through" day, which is when the 10-person crew goes to the jail and the officers show us everything that will happen during their program. This allowed our crew to work out technical logistics, like figuring how to film in each room without crossing each other's paths too much. The fifth day was our big "jail day" - where we had no idea what would happen and it, literally, kept us on our feet for over 12 hours.
Our interview days with the teens were often emotional and heartbreaking. The families opened their homes and hearts to our crew, and shared their worst nightmares coming true. The kids admitted stories of everything their parents urged them to not do. So many families were plagued by stories of loss and difficult times, and I hoped that each and every kid would change.
They say reality is stranger than fiction. It's also often more exhilarating and full of dramatic and sometimes comedic moments you could ever have imagined. Even though we do a walk-through with the program officers, and even though the producers spend hours with the kids and have feelings of how they will react behind bars, things always go off course and we are often surprised.
Jail days are the loudest (I sometimes left with a headache because there's so much screaming), but they also are filled with hope. The programs last for anywhere from 6-8+ hours. We never stop filming once the day begins. We don't interrupt or offer any direction and just let the officers, inmates, and kids do whatever they are going to do. On jail day, we are merely spectators.
When you film for that many hours, there's a lot that happens that never makes it to TV. Some moments are so personal that it's more effective for the camera to not be there and we respect that moment. Others are just so bizarre (inmates breakdancing/singing/etc.).
As I spent most of the jail day dodging the cameras and hoping to not get "the look" from our camera guys that I was in the background, I would listen to and watch everything going on, making sure everyone we are filming with has signed a release. Sometimes I was so touched by the bonds being formed or emotional stories being shared, that I'd tear up myself. I, too, was scared each time.
I experienced probably my most graceful moment of the series at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. We were in the basement where the kids do calisthenics. I knew I wouldn't get the chance to sit for about 10 hours so I took the chance to sit on a bench. I sat at the end of it, not realizing it was not screwed in to the floor. The bench immediately went mid-air and toppled over. The kids were already being so defiant and there was so much commotion that only a couple people noticed.
A month after we film the jail program, we return to the families' homes to film a follow-up. It's gratifying to show up and see a completely new and changed kid - no longer doing drugs, no longer fighting with their parent(s). It hurts to return to homes and see kids still heading in the wrong direction. But sometimes a change doesn't happen overnight, and the jail day always seems to at least plant a seed of change.
This series has changed me in ways I couldn't have imagined. I've never valued my freedom more. I'm much more aware of the sufferings happening daily across America, and I hope every day that they will get better. I hope that people will start to value life more and stop making choices that will end them up in jail.
Often I think back to the families and kids we filmed with and hope they are continuing on the right path. Life is often less fair than we think. We all are given chances and choices though, and we have to make the most of them. Luckily for these jail programs and officers that dedicate their time to changing lives, many teens are given another chance.
As of this past month, I've come full circle. Since we are not currently on the road filming, I'm temporarily back where I started: as Arnold and Paul's assistant.