Beyond Scared Straight

Behind The Bars: Week 28

Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

Tears and Fears

By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

Greetings, cellmates!

This Thursday, October 24th at 10pm on A&E, Beyond Scared Straight visits the juvenile diversion program in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. I love this program for a number of reasons. While most of the programs we visit take place solely in the jail, this one is an all-inclusive experience.

Teens this week not only see the frightening living conditions behind bars, they also witness the scope of problems that come with living a life of crime. They see the effects of those decisions on the loved ones around them.

Besides the jail, teens also speak with emergency room staffers who fight daily to save the lives of teens brought through their doors, shattered by drug overdoses, alcohol-induced car crashes, bullying and gang violence. While we were filming, we were shocked to see a helicopter land, carrying a teen who had been involved in an accident. All we could do was step out of the way and capture the reactions.

The program also goes through a mock courtroom trial, presided over by an actual judge and attorneys, in order to show the teens how difficult it is to hide their crimes. During one such trial, a shameful secret about one of the kids is revealed through interrogation, and he instantly transforms from a rebellious teen to a red-faced puddle of embarrassment.

I think one of the most heartbreaking scenes we have ever filmed between a mother and a daughter happens during another part of this week's episode. Queen Anne's County's program also includes a sobering stop at a local funeral home. In this particular scene, the teen is not allowed to speak and must witness the process her single mother must go through to bury her daughter. It is easy, and heartbreaking, for both the mother and daughter to quickly realize how the survivors become the real victims of any child's pointless fatality.

The following scene that takes place in the funeral home parking lot is gut-wrenching and, perhaps, the closest to soap opera our series has ever gone. It could have been a scene from MTV's The Hills. The only difference, of course, is that these are real people experiencing genuine emotions, without any interference from our producers.

It makes me cry every time I see it. I have a young daughter, and I also had to go through that funeral home process when I lost my first wife to cancer, so I couldn't help but absorb some of the emotions on screen.

Our series has caused a lot of tears to be shed. It still amazes me that the parents and teens that appear in the series become so unaware of our presence, and are so taken over by the jail experience and their personal journeys, that they break down with such honesty and emotion. It's a testament to the structure of all of the jail programs that the families are forced into becoming so vulnerable. That level of emotion brings forth honesty, respect, openness and, hopefully, change.

Those tears extend behind the scenes, too. Our field producers have grown to know these families and often cry right along with each of them. (Though they have to do it quietly so the microphones don't pick it up!)

Once we edit the episode, I want that same level of emotion to be felt by those of us piecing the series together--or else we are diminishing the impact of the actual experience. They say that reality is diminished by about 25% when you are watching something on a TV screen. The screen and the familiar surroundings of your home give you a level of separation from the emotions on screen. That's one of the reasons sitcoms are so over the top: they REALLY want you to know when something is funny.

Hopefully we have been able to touch you in some way with the emotions that the people appearing in our series have been open enough to share. Our aim is to make you feel it with as much impact as the families. Whether it's a mother weeping as she reaches out to her son through a window at visitation, or a teen breaking down when he sees his young brother lying on a table at the morgue, it has been one of our goals to maybe make you shed a tear along with them.

What has been the most emotional moment of the series for you?

Was it Cecilia in Chowchilla discovering that her mother was an inmate (something that took even us by surprise)?

Was it siblings Anthony and Alissa in Lake County, Florida finally telling each other that they loved each other?

Was it Ice Mike crying after yelling at Summer, who revealed that her father died and that's what led to her partying ways?

Was it discovering, in our follow-up special, that Stephen from the San Quentin episode is now paralyzed after a motorcycle accident?

Was it Jose from Mecklenburg County, who, after being berated by Sergeant Garrett, finally admitted that he just needed to be loved?

Was it Larry from San Bernardino finally reuniting with the father he hadn't seen since childhood, in our follow-up special?

Or was it Keshawn from Jacksonville, Florida, seeing his little brother on a morgue table, just after his mother reveals that her baby daughter had been murdered in a drive-by shooting?

There have been many happy tears, just as there have been many sad tears. I'd love to know which ones have touched you the most. Leave a comment and let's talk!

Also, for those of you on Twitter: I always watch the feeds while the show is airing on both the East Coast and West Coast. Don't be surprised if I respond the next time you have something to say!