Remember Beyond Scared Straight?
Beyond Scared Straight used to air on A&E. It was a reality show, one where teenagers would be taken into a prison and harassed by the guards and eventually the prisoners. The teenagers were usually guilty of things like skipping school, shoplifting, and either smoking weed or underage drinking. Oddly, I can remember one episode where all of the teens had to wear signs that announced what their crime was. One of them was wearing a sign that simply read, “I disrespect my parents.” I mean, that may be bad manners but is it really a crime for which you can be sent to jail?
Beyond Scared Straight was best known for the segments in which prisoners would yell at the teens and tell them about life in prison and say stuff like, “You don’t belong here! This is not for you!” What is often forgotten today is that the prisoners were usually only a small part of each episode of Beyond Scared Straight. Usually, more time was spent on the guards. Beyond Scared Straight visited a lot of towns and a lot of jails but the guards always seemed to remain the same. The male guards were always bulked up and bald and would try to yell like a drill sergeant. The female guards would always scream at anyone who didn’t stand up straight. “Kids today,” one of them said during one particular episode, “do not respect authority the way they should.” Considering what we’ve seen of authority over the past few years, that lack of respect is perhaps understandable. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the Scared Straight program does more harm than good. Whenever I watched Beyond Scared Straight, it always seemed like the program was more about humiliating the teens than actually trying to help them or to understand why they were doing the things that they were doing. It reminded me a bit of something that I read about the psychology behind spanking. It’s more about the anger of the adults than the behavior of the children and it usually leads to a lot of resentment down the line. There’s only so many times that anyone can be spanked or yelled at before they strike back.
I have to admit that, whenever I watched Beyond Scared Straight, I always enjoyed it whenever one of the “bad teens” would smirk at some screaming guard. There were a few episodes where a teen would actually take a swing at a guard and those were my favorite episodes. (I guess I have issues with authority, too.) If I had a difficult time taking Beyond Scared Straight seriously, it was because it hard for me to watch it without thinking of Steve Carell’s performance as Prison Mike on The Office.
Far more effective than Beyond Scared Straight was the documentary that inspired it, 1978’s Scared Straight! Scared Straight! followed a group of juvenile delinquents who were taken to a prison in New Jersey. The film didn’t waste any time with the guards and indeed, the documentary emphasized the fact that the convicts ran the prison and not the guards. (That’s the sort of thing that Beyond Scared Straight, with all of its “respect my authority” rhetoric, would never have the guts to admit.) In fact, the documentary really didn’t even reveal much about the teenagers being yelled at, beyond the fact that they all thought that they were tough (or, at least, they did before going into prison) and that all the boys had really thin, barely-there mustaches.
Instead, it’s the prisoners who dominated this documentary. The majority of them were serving life sentences. A few of them were murderers. They were angry, they were loud, and they made it clear that they didn’t like the people listening to them, filming them, or watching them. They left the audience with no doubt that the prisoners would hate them just as much as they hated the teens in the program. The prisoners stole everyone’s shoes. They knocked a stack of cards out of one teen’s hands. They regularly threatened to break one kid’s neck. They talked about what it was like to be raped in prison. They talked about what the teens would have to do in order to survive in prison. Scared Straight! was narrated by Peter Falk who, early on, informed the audience that they would be hearing some “rough language.” Falk wasn’t lying. The prisoners in this film were frightening in a way that their later television counterparts never could be. One doesn’t have to be a believer in the Scared Straight! program (and you’ve probably noticed by now that I’m not) to find the prisoners to be both compelling and disturbing at the same time. All of the prisoners were obviously intelligent but, just as obviously, prison had left physical, mental, and emotional scars that would never heal.
Scared Straight! was a huge success, winning both an Oscar and an Emmy. It led to various follow-up documentary, which explored whether or not the teens had actually been scared straight. After I watched the original Scared Straight!, I watched Scared Straight: 20 Years Later. Released in 1999, this documentary was narrated by Danny Glover and featured interviews with the surviving prisoners and program participants. At the time the documentary was released, almost all of the prisoners had been paroled. Three of them had died, one from a drug overdose, one from AIDS, and another from a sudden heart attack. A few of the parolees had been re-arrested and were now back in prison and, just as importantly, a few others had stayed out of trouble. As for the teens, one had died of AIDS and one was in prison but the rest of the surviving teens claimed that they had all learned from the program. At least two were involved in the ministry. The others all had families and steady jobs. None of them seemed to be particularly well-off financially but, at the same time, the majority of them seemed to be happy.
Of course, Scared Straight: 20 Years Later was filmed over 20 years ago. Things change. One of the graduates of the original program, Angelo Speziale, appeared in 20 Years Later, playing with his children and talking about how he had a few minor run-ins with the law immediately after the program. At the time, Speziale said that was all behind him and he was now just focused on being the best father that he could be. As I watched Angelo Speziale talk about how perfect his life was, I couldn’t help but think that there was something slightly off about him. He seemed to be trying too hard to come across as just a regular suburban dad. In 2011, long after he was interviewed for 20 Years After, Angelo Speziale was arrested and charged with raping and murdering one of his neighbors in 1982, four years after he took part in the Scared Straight program. Angelo Speziale is now serving a life sentence at the same prison where the original Scared Straight! was filmed. As for the rest of the participants, who knows? Hopefully, they’re doing well.