With the talk show jungle of the last decade the spectacle of convicts screaming in the faces of juvenile delinquents has become just one of the bizarre list of things that we can take for granted, along with skinny-obese couples, septugenerian strippers and KKK groupies. But in 1978 the television documentary Scared Straight! gave a group of teens a taste of the big house and the results spawned a media frenzy as well as much sociological theorizing.
Docurama's DVD release of Scared Straight! includes both the original program as well as a more recent follow-up program hosted by Danny Glover. The original Scared Straight! is a benchmark in self-help as entertainment: A bunch of crime loving kids are offered the chance to visit a prison for a few hours. The films begins with them bragging about how they're not scared of the inmates, how they're going to run the joint and scare the prisoners. Then they walk into Rahway State Prison and the doors lock behind them. Instantly they all freeze up, their faces frozen in worry. Prisoners in holding cells cat-call them in nasty ways. The kids are then corralled into an auditorium and sit in a semi-circle while a procession of cons explains in intimate detail what prison life is like. They barely ever come into physical contact with the kids but their words hit like fists. Sometimes they scream in their faces while other times they softly whisper. It's bravura filmmaking and performance except it's all true. One inmate positively hollers the process by which a cute young convict becomes another prisoner's bitch, giving extremely graphic details no doubt culled from his own experience (undoubtedly on both sides of the relationship.) He also explains the five possible responses to being raped in prison, none of which ends well. Then, after a monologue of extreme power and horror for the kids, he turns away and mutters under his breath "It'll be much easier for me to show you than to tell you." It's as sinister as anything Saruman ever bellowed at the Frodo but infinitely more frightening.
Making matters worse, each of the cons participating in Scared Straight! is in for more than 20 years. Many are murderers. One is serving two life sentences. These people are not joking around. Their experiences have left them hollowed out, or at least that's what they've determined is the best deterrent for these kids. The basic reasoning for staying on the straight and narrow isn't because crime is wrong but because prison sucks. Of course, if that's what it takes to keep a kid from progressing from petty theft to murder and rape then that's what it is.
The effect on the group of kids in the film is profound. At least for the immediate post-filming period they all seem changed. During the follow-up program its clear that far more of them cleaned their act than not. How much of that is due to the Scared Straight! program and how much is just due to growing up is impossible to know. But as far as making a memorable program, it has real impact. Just imagining the language used here being broadcast on TV is incredible; It's way beyond anything in NYPD Blue.
As for the updates, as I said most of the subjects grew up to be law abiding citizens. Some had minor scuffles with the law but overall they seem normal, which again begs the question, how much of their development was totally normal? Still, it's interesting to catch up with these folks. The updates include the cons as well, some of whom are dead, others free from prison. One strange moment comes when one of the cons, back in prison after a brief free spell, visits the one kid who did end up leading a life of crime in the big house. These two guys, both fully aware of the stupidity of their actions and their situation, know better than to admonish each other. They're in the same boat.