Beyond Scared Straight

Behind the Bars: Season 6, #3

Family Gatherings
Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

Hello! First things first! Beyond Scared Straight now airs Fridays at 10/9c and this week's episode is as emotional as last week's, and for similar reasons.

Last week Beyond Scared Straight told the tragic story of Xavier, the brother of Asia, a girl who went through the jail tour in Douglas County, Georgia. Xavier had recently served three years in jail and was determined to change his life for the better. He wanted to be a role model for Asia, who was heading down a bad path. We captured many sweet moments between the two, and it was nice that Asia had a positive force in her life.

A week after the jail tour, Xavier was murdered. Many of you asked if the murderer had been caught, and there has been an arrest in the case. Asia is struggling with the depression she naturally feels over losing her brother but has been in counseling to deal with that. She is doing well overall and is looking forward to trying out for cheerleading within the next year.

When the episode aired, Asia watched with her mother, family and friends. They cried to see Xavier again, but they were also very pleased that his story was told. They were stunned by the outpouring of support on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, Asia received over 10,000 new followers on Twitter after the episode aired. Even legal parties involved in Xavier's case tuned in to see the man before his life was cut short.

Asia's mother says they "plan to continue to take a stand against youth and teen violence," and viewers can follow the family's progress on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The episode showed once again the power of family to affect the lives of children. Over the course of six seasons, we have seen this play out repeatedly. We have seen great parents and parents unaware of their own failings. We have seen teenagers learning criminal ways from their older siblings and families torn apart by divorce and street violence.

The one thing all our featured teens have in common, however, is that someone in their family wants them to lead better lives and enrolled them in a juvenile diversion program. Change starts at the family level, but I imagine it can't be easy for a teen to find a reason to change when his own role models could probably use some change, too.

This week's episode takes place in Chester County, South Carolina, and has what I think is the most "cinematic" scene of the series. If I didn't know this was pure documentary, I would have assumed the scene was scripted beforehand because of how it plays out!

Shakial, 15, has had a tough life and he takes a lot of his troubles with him into the jail. He is both rebellious and distant when deputies first confront him, and it looks like nothing they say to him will make him change. To Shakial, jail is nothing more than a rite of passage that all men have to endure at some point in their lives.

After all, if his role model of a brother can go to jail and survive, why can't he?

What Shakial never expected was that, on this day, his older brother John would be one of the inmates he would encounter in jail. Shakial was shocked and shaken when his tough-as-nails brother, incarcerated for armed robbery, strutted into the cellblock. John's face showed everything he was feeling - sadness and disappointment, not only for Shakial's fate but also for his own failure as a role model.

The scene that plays out between them, as they quietly eat lunch together, is emotional, revealing and uncommonly deep. Shakial tells John that he used to be his role model and in response, John asks who his role models are now.

"Nobody," says Shakial, as he breaks down in tears.

The scene is complemented by the brilliant decision of our director of photography Jim Wright, to shoot the scene from a distance, zoomed in to capture their faces. This allowed the brothers to talk openly without feeling like we were breathing down their necks. As well, editor Hilary Scratch allowed the scene to play out in real time, leaving in all the uncomfortable pauses, as two people in pain tried to find the right words to say.

Like I always say, there is no greater drama than truth.

In this case, we were made aware by the jail beforehand that Shakial's brother was incarcerated. When we first met him, Shakial had already been signed up for the tour by his family. We were gratified to learn that his brother had taken part in past "scared straight" encounters and would be taking part in this one as well. Neither brother knew the other would be there that day and the power of the moment is perfectly captured.

It's heartbreaking how many times one of our teens has encountered a family member in jail. We never see it coming but our field team has become experts at noticing something out of the ordinary. To my memory, this was the first time we knew about a family connection beforehand but it seems like this happens more times than we ever anticipated.

I think back to what might be our most popular episode, the women's prison at Chowchilla, California, which featured unforgettable inmates like "Diabla," "Green Eyes" and "Pretty Boy." It was only the second episode we had filmed and we knew we were in for a long, surprising ride after that one.

In the episode, teenager Cecilia walked into the prison yard with a few other teens. Swarmed by inmates, some of the teens began to cry. Out of the corner of his eye, one of the cameramen noticed a woman dropping to her knees and his instincts told him something important was happening, even though it was hard for anyone to hear what was happening. As it turned out, this was Cecilia's estranged mother.

Nobody knew this was going to happen - not the prison, the film crew, Cecilia or her mom. It was heartbreaking to watch and, as filmmakers, it reminded us that documentaries are more like haunted houses than roller coasters. Yes, we have our ups and downs but there is always something unexpected waiting just around the next corner.

In the coming weeks, we will be putting together a very special "Best Of" episode. We will ask you what you consider to be the best moments from the series. One of the categories will be "Most Emotional Scene," and I expect both the Cecilia and the Shakial scenes to rate pretty high in the poll.

Thanks again for watching and I'll talk to you next week!

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