“Beyond Scared Straight” producer shares secrets of A&E’s hit series

It had been more than 30 years since the landmark documentary Scared Straight! won an Academy Award when A&E decided to revive the format — juvenile offenders spending time with hardened inmates inside a prison in an effort to get them to change their ways — for a weekly series. Beyond Scared Straight has become one of the network’s biggest successes, having last year come through with the most-watched series premiere in A&E history. The much-anticipated second season begins Aug. 18 at 10pm.

Last week, I spoke with Arnold Shapiro, who created the original Scared Straight! and is executive producer of the new series, about what’s changed — and what hasn’t — in the prison system over the years, how the show comes together week after week, and what he thinks of all those Scared Straight! parodies on Saturday Night Live:

In spite of the intense situation on the show, is it challenging to keep it fresh and compelling week in and week out?

Every episode we do is almost like live theater, because you can prepare as much as humanly possible but one never knows what will happen when the juveniles who are going through the program interact with the inmates and the officers and respond to what’s happening to them. We’ve had almost every reaction imaginable. There’s always great uncertainty when we go to tape an episode because we really don’t know what’s going to happen. Even after the taping we don’t know what’s going to happen when we come back a month later for our epilogue and find out how the kids have changed or if the change they professed at the end of the tour sticks. The challenge of keeping it fresh, as you say, is basically in the programs that we profile. Obviously the inmates are different, the officers are different, the kids are different, the jail or prison facility is different, so there are inherent differences going in. But every program is different from the others in some number of ways. That’s what we focus on. You saw two — I’m assuming Michigan and Mecklenburg, N.C. — those programs are very different. Yes, there are similarities because anytime you go into a jail there are going to be similarities. There are going to be bars and locked doors and safety procedures that need to be followed, etc. But every program is different. We have one program where kids are actually kept all night in individual cells. We have another program that actually takes place over a week and it not only involves a jail, but it involves a courtroom, a hospital emergency room and a funeral home and a sheriff’s office. Obviously it’s a very expansive one. So there are some very different ones, but even if two programs appear to be somewhat similar, they don’t wind up being that way because of the kids.

How do you determine which kids in a program you’re going to feature?

Because it’s an hour show — and that means with everything it’s 44 minutes, and that includes the epilogues, which tend to run about seven minutes — we can only follow a certain number of teens, and that number seems to be turning out to be about four. Now we have followed four, we’ve followed five. Last season there were a couple when we even followed six, but basically it’s about four. The average number of teens who go through a given program is eight. So by the time we finish doing the pre-jail packages, we have a sense of which kids are going to be the most interesting to follow and by the time the jail tour is over we have an even better sense of which kids are going to be the most interesting to follow.

Is part of that formula based on which ones you think are more likely to change, or is it more just their personality?

You would think [their likeliness to change] would be the total reason, but it’s not. It really is based on their personalities and what happens with them. We didn’t have any belief that (SPOILER ALERT) Brandon T. from Michigan, who stood up to the officers and just kind of had a meltdown, would ever change. Even when the tour was over, he got thrown out. But we still picked him, because it was so explosive and we never saw anything like that before or since. Although, other kids have stood up to officers. It’s amazing. When I went through high school or even college you never thought you would disrespect a teacher or an authority figure, especially somebody in law enforcement, but these kids have no fear.

This is one of A&E’s biggest shows, and you’ve been doing this since the original Scared Straight! in 1978. What do you believe is the attraction for people watching at home?

I think the appeal is different for different viewers. One appeal would be the suspense of it all. You get to know a group of kids, and you’re really curious — especially when they say, “If anybody gets in my face, I’m going to hit ’em” — to see the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with these kids. Then, ultimately, what’s going to happen with them when they finish with the program and [during the epilogue] a month later. So that’s one of them.

The other is, honestly, I think a lot of parents are in the same predicament or situation as the parents we see, and they’re watching because they hope that maybe they can find a similar program for their kids. When I started Beyond Scared Straight in the 21st century I just never realized how many families there are without fathers. It’s the single biggest surprise that came to me. I consider myself a somewhat educated person, and I knew about that issue but I never lived it, I never saw it like I’ve seen it here. Fathers who either abandoned the family, divorced or separated from the mother because of violence, [are] in jail, dead, on drugs or alcohol, whatever. It’s a huge problem. It seems to affect the kids who are left behind in various ways, both boys and girls. Sometimes it’s the opposite and the mother is gone, and Dad’s trying to do the same. So I think there are a lot of families who watch this because they want answers, too, and they make their kids watch it.

We taped our last episode of Season 2 just this last Saturday in Virginia, and prior to it the mom to one of the boys who was supposed to go through made him sit down and watch all of Season 1, which was seven episodes. And after he watched he got so scared he refused to go through the program. He didn’t show up. The mom said, “I can’t make him go.” And we wanted to say, “Why did you show him all seven episodes? That wasn’t exactly a wise thing to do.” But if every parent were wise, we wouldn’t have the problems we have.

Is part of the attraction for viewers, too, this vicarious thrill of seeing these punks, these bratty kids, finally getting a reality check?

That absolutely is a component of the appeal for a lot of people. Because most people have children, they don’t want to see kids grow up to be criminals who could attack them. Even inmates don’t want that, because most of them have kids. The idea of seeing a kid come in with that bravado and arrogance and tough-guy appeal — girls, too — and watching them have a sobering experience of finding out what jail is really like and what can happen to you, then coming out and saying, “I’m going to change. I’ve got to change, because I don’t ever want to come back here. I couldn’t survive here. This is just the worst thing ever.” There’s really something to be said in that case for negative reinforcement. It’s coming up on two years from the time we did the pilot, and we have those kids to look back on and how many of them who have just turned their lives around and attributed it to that day because it was that traumatic.

Talk a little about the difference between doing the original Scared Straight!, which was just one documentary, and doing this as a series, week in and week out. Is this more of a grind?

Yes, it’s certainly more of a grind. This has been one of the hardest series I’ve ever produced because of all the uncertainties. For the most part, you’re dealing with an unpredictable population. You’re dealing with people who’ve got kids who run away and don’t come home and defy their parents, so you can line up something and then lose a kid the day before. There’s a lot of stress involved in doing this, and there’s also a lot of stress just going into these jails and prisons knowing you’re not in the safest place in the world, even though we’ve never had a problem. But I’ve seen some scary people and I was happy an officer was next to me. I think for me the biggest satisfaction is that unlike the original Scared Straight! we’re really getting to know the kids and their home lives and their circumstances and their parents and all of that. In the original Scared Straight! you knew the first name of 17 kids, and you knew that they came from New Jersey, and that’s all you knew. Here, you really have a sense of who these kids are and I think it’s a much more complete profile of the before and the after. So that’s much more satisfying for me, much more interesting to see the dynamics of it. You get to know everybody better.

Has it ever been difficult to get prisons to participate?

No. The only difference is, in prisons that have these juvenile diversion programs, the inmates are there for a long period of time, and the same ones participate for months or years at a time. A jail is, generally speaking, a revolving door. When you get arrested you go to jail, and you either get out on bond or you have to stay there awaiting trial and then after you’re sentenced, if it’s a short sentence [a year or less] you stay in jail. If it’s a year or more, you go to prison. So the inmates come and go more frequently. In jail, we’ve had many situations where we’ve interviewed a lot of inmates who wanted to do it and … we selected six to participate. And then we get there the day before and two of them are no longer there. They either got out or were sentenced or whatever. It’s a little more of an unstable population, but it’s also a little more of a diverse population because if you’re in prison, you did something bad. In jail, yes there are murderers and rapists and armed robbers and carjackers awaiting trial or sentencing, but there also are people who have just shoplifted or tried to pass bad checks. When I say “just,” I certainly don’t mean to say that’s not serious, just something that’s nonviolent. It doesn’t mean they’re not really good at doing this. By the way, almost without exception, most of the inmates who are in jail for whatever they’re doing currently have been to prison before. One of the other things we’ve learned is that once you get into the system it’s the rare person who serves his or her time, gets out and never re-offends the rest of their life. There are people who go back six or seven times.

There’s a weird sense of the prisoners and officers sort of being on the same team. How does that dynamic work?

You’re absolutely right in terms of this program. In fact, there have been situations where officers send their own kids through. … For the most part there’s kind of a working relationship that inmates and officers have, which is the officers know the mentality of the inmates and the inmates know what the officers are there to do. Nobody wants trouble. Remember, if an inmate gets in trouble they’re put in solitary or get privileges taken away. All kinds of bad things can happen to them. So most of the people behave most of the time. When they’re told what to do they just do it. Some of them are friendly. Some of them have gone to high school together, if it’s a smaller town. Really. An officer will say, “I’ve known him since the fourth grade.” “We graduated together.” “I knew his brother.” “We played football together.” So they know the families, if it’s a smaller community. … They have to work together every day, and for the most part, most people want to keep it peaceful and just do what they have to do. But without exception, you can’t talk to an officer who hasn’t been in a fight or who hasn’t been attacked by somebody, because there’s this whole other issue of mental patients who should be in mental facilities and not in jail, but due to budget issues and all kinds of things.

The show is about how the program affects the juveniles, but what about the prisoners? Do they change for the positive?

It does change them. In every interview we always ask [if they have changed], and they go out of their way to say, first of all, that they get nothing for it. They don’t get a reduction in their sentence, they don’t get special privileges, they don’t get money, they just do it to help kids, because they don’t want to see kids follow in their footsteps. I have seen on more than one occasion, including this last Saturday, tough male inmates who are there for murder — and you can just see from the tattoos and the size of their biceps and everything else that these are tough guys — break down and cry. Sob. I’ve seen it. It’s usually afterward when the kids are gone and the whole emotional catharsis occurs, but I saw it happen when I was researching one program, I saw it while he was saying goodbye to one of the kids. So they really get into it, and they don’t do it for any other reason except to help kids. As I said, most of them have kids, and on some level they feel guilty because they’re not with their kids or their kids have grown up and followed in their footsteps. There have been at least two instances of fathers and sons in the same facility. It’s tough. In spite of the awful things these people have done, and maybe in some cases even how awful they are, they are doing this one good thing and they’re only doing it to help the kids. There’s no other thing in it for them. In many cases they’re giving up a workday where they get 95 cents or some paltry amount of money for working in the kitchen or the laundry or wherever. They give that up to be present for this program.

What do you say to criticism of the show and these programs?

That’s been going on since the original Scared Straight! It’s largely the academic community that believes if you can just sit down and counsel [juvenile offenders] or give them a mentor, then everything will be fine. If society had the money or the resources to do that, that would be great, if every kid could have years of counseling. But it’s not realistic. There are critics of everything, and the only thing I can say to anybody who is skeptical or critical is I’m seeing it for myself. I’m not reading some study from 30 years ago that said these programs don’t work. By the way, nobody has done any study in the 21st century. In fact, nobody’s done any study in the last 20 years. There’s no program that exists now that’s ever been studied, and any study that was done of a program, it’s a program that no longer exists. So it’s totally irrelevant. But I’m seeing it with my own eyes, I’m there for every one of these shoots. I’m meeting these people and I’m seeing the change. It’s testimonial, I’m not a social scientist. I don’t have a PhD. But I’m seeing it for myself and I’m hearing it for myself, so I believe it because I’m seeing it work. It doesn’t work for everybody. Every variation you can think of exists: Some kids come out 180 degrees changed and stay that way. Some kids come out not changed at all, and two months later — which happened in our pilot — the light bulb went on with this kid and he made a complete change at that point. Some come out and say they’re going to change, and start to, and get lured back by the environment and ultimately they’re back where they started. I can’t tell you how many inmates — well, I can tell you, four — who say to the kids, “I went through this program when I was your age, I didn’t listen, and look where I am now.” There’s every variation. It works for some, it doesn’t work for some, but you can say that about any program that exists. This seems to have a higher rate than most, I’m finding, for those jails that actually keep statistics and follow up with the kids six months later. Some of these jails have the parents come for the day, too, and they get counseled by the officers. They kind of go through a parenting class, so that component exists in some of these programs.

Given your passion and long involvement in this, does it ever bother you to see the Scared Straight! parodies on Saturday Night Live or elsewhere?

I’ve seen every Saturday Night Live sketch. I’ve seen the parodies on several of the sitcoms that have done it over the years, and I love it. I even wrote Lorne Michaels a letter of praise, and I said, “Thank you for keeping Scared Straight! alive.” … But I don’t mind. It doesn’t bother me at all. “Scared Straight” is an iconic term. All of these programs have their own name — well, two of them are actually called the Scared Straight program. But colloquially, all the inmates and all of the officers refer to their program as the Scared Straight program.

Photo: Courtesy of Arnold Shapiro Productions

1 Comment

  1. Hi, My mom, Mrs.Murphy, predicted your success!! How wonderful for you. Keep up the good work. Congratulations!

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