By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer
Welcome to the fifth season of A&E's Emmy-nominated documentary series, Beyond Scared Straight, premiering October 3rd at 10:00pm on A&E. When we began this series, we honestly had no idea whether audiences would embrace our show week after week, but here you are, five seasons later, joining our talented crew, dedicated law enforcement personnel and life-changing inmates behind bars.
This season features something never before seen on Beyond Scared Straight: in the second episode of the season, one teen featured on a previous episode returns, this time as an inmate trying to set a new group of teens on the right path. Our premiere episode, set in the Breaking Bad territory of Albuquerque, New Mexico, shows what happens when two brothers are split apart in jail and can no longer protect each other. As I have said so many times, we never know how each episode is going to end, and this one is a shocker.
As we enter our fifth season, it is still such a great feeling to know that our series not only changes the lives of the teens on our series but also the lives of families across the United States. It's a huge honor, and it's you, our dedicated audience, who makes it possible.
And I am still amazed that I get to be part of the legacy of Scared Straight.
Producer Arnold Shapiro's original Scared Straight documentary feature film won an Academy Award almost 35 years ago and instantly became part of the national cultural discussion. The phrase "scared straight" was a novel term then, but it is now a recognized phrase and concept. It has been mentioned in film, television and song ever since.
Scared Straight spawned a number of direct follow-up projects. In 1980, Scared Straight: Another Story, also produced by Shapiro, presented a movie-of-the-week scripted version. The film starred, among others, Tony Burton, who played Apollo Creed's and eventually Rocky Balboa's trainer in the Rocky films. It also starred St. Elsewhere's Eric Laneuville, who would go on to become one of TV's top directors (The Glades, Lost, The Mentalist, NCIS: Los Angeles, CSI: NY, Hawaii Five-O, Doogie Howser, M.D.).
A follow-up documentary called Scared Straight: 10 Years Later, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, and another called Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, hosted by Danny Glover, looked in on the now-grown teens from the original film. Almost all of them had stayed out of a life of crime.
Of course, they weren't the only people on TV to be scared out of a life of crime...
Steve Urkel: "I have been Scared Straight. I saw a guy who had a tattoo of a battleship."
Laura Lee Winslow: "So?"
Steve Urkel: "It was on his tongue!"
These lines of dialogue from TV's ultimate geek were spoken on the 1992 episode of Family Matters, "Jailhouse Blues." It was not the first time the phrase "scared straight" was mentioned in popular culture, and it wouldn't be the last. Audiences have always embraced the Scared Straight concept.
Saturday Night Live has spoofed Scared Straight a number of times, most memorably with Betty White, Lindsay Lohan and Zach Galifianakis as inmates who recall scenes from movies as if they had actually lived them. Mad TV spoofed the concept with the "Scared Straight Anywhere" sketch, in which two inmates terrify a boardroom, a Boy Scout meeting and a Sean Connery movie set.
In a 2006 episode of The Office, Steve Carrell takes on the character of "Prison Mike" in an attempt to motivate his employees. He boasts, "I stole and I robbed and I kidnapped the President's son and held him for ransom." By the way, I don't think "Prison Mike" was any relation to St. Clair, Illinois' "Ice Mike" from our series.
The list is seemingly endless. Scared Straight has been featured or referenced in episodes of Hardcastle and McCormick (1984), The Golden Girls (1988), Jamie Lee Curtis' series Anything But Love (1989), The Wayans Brothers (1995), Married With Children (1993), Beverly Hills, 90210 (1994), Crossing Jordan (2001), Malcolm in the Middle (2003), The Venture Brothers (2004), Cracking Up (2004), My Name Is Earl (2007), Entourage (2009) and even Dog the Bounty Hunter (2010).
In a 1993 episode of Beavis and Butthead, the boys get sent behind bars to take part in a Scared Straight-style program. Unfortunately, they discover that life in prison suits them and refuse to leave.
On the second episode of the wonderful series Freaks and Geeks (1999), know-it-all Neil tells a doubtful Bill that if he doesn't pay attention in school, he will end up dead or in jail. He asks, "Were you asleep during Scared Straight?"
In a 2001 episode of Will & Grace, Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mullally) visit Karen's husband in jail. Jack approaches a guard and says, "Hi. I just want to let you know that I have seen the documentary Scared Straight 17 times. Never took."
Arrested Development presented its own version of juvenile deterrence programs in 2005, when convict George Bluth, Sr. takes part in a program called "Startled Straight." He reports to a county fair but enters the wrong Startled Straight tent--the one sponsored by a church to scare gay teens into a heterosexual lifestyle.
George Bluth, Sr.: "You want to have some guy reach around you in the middle of the night and start messing with your junk?"
Teen Boy: "Is he ugly?"
The animated series The Boondocks reportedly used lines of dialogue taken directly from the original Scared Straight documentary in their episode "A Date With the Booty Warrior," in which characters endure a day in prison.
A search on YouTube reveals hundreds of homemade spoofs of Scared Straight. Some of them are actually pretty funny. We love our fans!
Recently, Netflix's Orange is the New Black, an accurate but comedic portrayal of female prison life, dedicated an entire episode to the Scared Straight premise. As a Scared Straight expert, I couldn't help but nitpick a few inaccuracies of what is allowed during a jail tour, but it was still a great episode of television in a very enjoyable series.
One of the standout characters on Orange is Taystee, portrayed by Danielle Brooks. In a recent interview, Brooks discussed her research for the role:
"I have always been fascinated with women in prison, and I'd watched a lot of TV shows and reality shows, like Beyond Scared Straight. So I was already prepared."
Before reading that quote, I had already recognized several lines of dialogue and character mannerisms taken from our very non-fiction series. It was like watching a scripted version of our Chowchilla episode from our first season--only without the smells and danger of the real thing.
Scared Straight has influenced so much popular culture, including songs by Tupac Shakur, Killer Mike, New Bomb Turks and The Long Winters. I think what makes it an enduring part of the public consciousness is its unflinching and honest look at the realities of life in prison. When something is that real and that iconic, it is easy to satirize it.
I am proud to be part of the legacy of what began almost 35 years ago, and I think we have created a series that pays tribute to and continues the mission of that original film. The fifth season is no different. We visit new jails and also return to some of our most powerful and terrifying institutions. I don't think we have made an episode yet that I am not enormously proud of.
I hope you come along for the ride. Fasten your seat belts!