By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer
Here we are, already at the end of another life-changing season of "Beyond Scared Straight." And yes, we will be back with more new episodes for our 8th season! I hope you and your friends and family have been moved by the changes that these at-risk teens have gone through. Of course, that one day in jail is only the beginning, and the teens will need the support of their families as they move forward, but I always have hope that they will stay on the right path.
This Thursday night at 10pm (9pm Central) we return to Fulton County, Georgia and meet one of the most brazen and reckless siblings we have ever encountered. Adjanie, 15, stole a credit card, bought herself a plane ticket, and ran away to Miami for three weeks. Her brother Jefferson, 16, has choked his mother and burglarized homes. The inmates and deputies focus on these two teenagers and the results are completely unexpected.
As always at the end of every season, I need to thank those who have reached out to these teens, on both sides of the prison bars. It is not our series, but rather the deputies and inmates that get these teens to open their eyes and look toward a more lawful and productive future.
Going into these jails and prisons, we never know what inmates we will meet. Especially in the county jails, the turnover rate is very high. When we return to a location, we often discover that an inmate that made an impression on our previous visit has either been released or sent to the state prison after sentencing.
It really is like a game of inmate roulette when we arrive. We never know whom we are going to encounter. The day before the teens enter the jail, our producers and crew tour the jail so they know where to be with their cameras to capture all the action. Producers also meet with the inmates and tell them to forget that the cameras are there. This is the first time we meet the inmates that the jail has made available, and we get an early sense of which inmates will really make an impact. And it's pure chance that an inmate has been sent to jail during the window of time when we arrive to film.
I thought a lot about this recently when I was called for jury duty in Los Angeles. Despite it being my duty as an American, I didn't necessarily want to go. I have a daughter to drive to school, a job, and other responsibilities and TV shows to binge watch. One day was bad enough, but the possibility of being required to deliberate over a verdict for days or weeks filled me with dread.
I was less bothered when stunning actress Natalie Portman also took a seat in the crowded jury room. If an Oscar-winning movie star who gave birth to a Jedi warrior and dates a God of Thunder can proudly show up for jury duty, so can I.
There were about a hundred citizens in the jury room. We were told that if we didn't get called into a courtroom that day, our service was done and we would not have to return to the courthouse again. I found myself looking at the clock more and more frequently as the day wound to an end. It was like I was in high school again, waiting for that final bell.
Then, with only an hour left, the woman in charge of the jury room announced that names were about to be called for a trial. She called name after name and mine did not come up... until she had already called 44 other people. My heart sank because now I knew I would have to return the next day.
We lined up and went to a courtroom two floors above the jury selection room. Everyone on the elevator was grumbling about what an imposition this was. All I could think about was the depressing fact that Natalie Portman was called to a different courtroom.
I have never been on jury duty before and I was surprised to find the defendants in the courtroom as we walked in. The very friendly judge thanked us for our community service and gave us the most vague description of the case. It centered on an assault at a nightclub involving a security guard and patron. By the time the judge was done speaking, the day had come to a close. We were all asked to return the following day.
I was prospective juror number 45. One by one, each person had to stand up and answer the same questions, some specific to the case:
- What area of Los Angeles did you reside in?
- What is your marital status? Any kids?
- What is your profession?
- Have you ever worked as a security guard?
- Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime?
- Do you know anyone in law enforcement?
- Do you know any convicted felons?
As the other jurors stood up, I watched the three defendants trying to figure out who all these strangers were who were going to be deciding their fate. Their freedom and incarceration were totally dependent on the right mix of jurors. I thought about filming in California jails and prisons like San Bernardino, Chowchilla, Corcoran or San Quentin and how these defendants could soon be added to those populations based on my judgment.
The judge asked each potential juror if they could be impartial, and each said that he could. Occasionally, one would say that he had a cousin that was a cop in Florida. Or one would say that his college roommate was busted for driving under the influence.
I wondered, after all that I have seen in these depressing, terrifying jails, after meeting so many fearsome and fearless people on both sides of the prison bars, if I could be impartial. I have met killers and thieves, so many of who claim to be innocent or victims of the system. I have met teens who went down the wrong path primarily because of bad parenting and tough neighborhoods. I realized that, despite all that, I could judge fairly.
In fact, I was now honored to be given this ability, this privilege, this requirement of the legal system. I knew that despite what awful conditions I had seen in jails, I would not let that sway me from the task before me: deciding someone's innocence or guilt based on the facts.
I was ready to serve! Then I was asked my questions:
Judge: "What is your profession?"
Me: "TV producer."
Judge: "Have you ever worked as a security guard?"
Me: "Yes. That's one job I had to pay my way through college. I wasn't very good at it."
Judge: "Do you know any people in law enforcement?"
Me: "Well, I know hundreds I guess. Corrections officers, sheriffs, deputies. The show I produce kind of deals with that."
Judge: "Do you know anyone that has been charged or convicted of a crime?"
Me: "Yeah. We shoot in prisons and jails. I've met a bunch of them. We aren't friends though."
The courtroom laughed.
Judge: "I see. Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime?"
Me: "When I was in college, I hopped the fence at an amusement park and got caught going down the big slide. I did some community service, and got it taken off my record."
The courtroom laughed.
After the lawyers asked me to clarify some of my responses, they all decided that I was not their kind of juror. After all that internal deliberation, neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted me!
My life has certainly changed a lot in the years that we have been doing this series. I know as much about living in prison as people who live there full time. I know phrases and slang that I was never taught in elementary school.
I hope you come back next season to see more life-changing television. After shooting several dozen episodes, and meeting hundreds of at-risk teens, I am still surprised with things that happen in every single episode - I know you will be too.