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Beyond Scared Straight

Illustration for article titled iBeyond Scared Straight/i
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In 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled that George Carlin's standup routine "Filthy Words" was "indecent but not obscene" (they didn't say anything about funny) and upheld the FCC's right to determine that such material could not be broadcast until such hours as the little ones might be safely assumed to be tucked away snug in their beds. That same year, some of the stars of that monologue, who had previously headlined in his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", made their broadcast TV debut in the prime time documentary Scared Straight! There was an especially standout performance by the dreaded f-word.

But instead of being handcuffed and hustled downtown to central booking, the makers of Scared Straight! were garlanded with awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement–Informational Program and Outstanding Informational Program." The difference was that the documentary had a socially redeeming angle that rendered it culturally respectable, even admirable: it showed baby-faced kids being taunted with obscene language as a means to shock them onto the path of righteousness. It was an irony that Carlin himself might have appreciated, or at least done twenty minutes about.

Produced and directed by Arnold Shapiro, Scared Straight!. which documented a meeting between a group of lifers and a cross-section of teenaged petty offenders at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, introduced both a phrase and a controversial, much-parodied concept to the culture at large. Anyone who's seen a Hollywood movie about military life knows that the best way to make an ordinary slob off the street straighten up and fly right is to line him up with a bunch of other slobs and holler abuse at him. Scared Straight! applied the concept to urban warriors as a rehabilitation technique aimed at helping troubled kids who hadn't yet become serious menaces to society. The viewer is primed to see the kids as punks who think that it's a hoot to be bad and who might even be looking forward to kicking it with the real men, the ones who are so bad they've had to be locked up. A couple of hours of having their future life as a bitch-ass punk sketched out for them, at top volume and in language that might make David Mamet blush, soon gets them to reordering their priorities. 

Scared Straight! inspired catching-up sequels in 1987 and 1999, which perhaps makes it America's real answer to England's 7 Up series. Feel free to be just as embarrassed about that as you like. In the meantime, the success of the documentary inspired other states to start their own "Scared Straight" programs. Beyond Scared Straight checks in on four of them, starting with Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. The original Scared Straight! was narrated by Peter Falk—a perfect choice, given that the star of Columbo managed to combine the appeal of a gruff but warm authority figure with that of a fifty-year-old Dead End Kid. The most recent of the follow-up shows was hosted by Danny Glover, a man whose responsible-liberal-citizen vibe throbs so hard that he could make you that you were doing your part to make America a better place by watching a double bill of I Drink Your Blood/ I Eat Your Skin.

Beyond Scared Straight dispenses with such frills and instead throws you right into your introductions to a handful of misbehaving young women in the twelve-to-seventeen age range, who giddily describe their lives of sin before being bundled into an SUV and chauffeured off to spend the morning with Green Eyes ("50, Second Degree Murder, 15 Years to Life"), Pretty Boy, Diabla, and all the rest. We've apparently reached the point where the sight of a bulked-up woman with facial tattoos bellowing at a tearful girl about what she'd love to do to her if she had her in there for real is considered self-explanatory.

At first, it's a little embarrassing to see how naturally the "Scared Straight" phenomena fits into the ready template of such A & E reality shows as Intervention and Hoarders. Leanna, the juvie who it's easiest to imagine being played in a Lifetime movie by an Olsen twin, is a self-described "preacher's daughter" whose father, having been driven to deny her the privilege of a bedroom door, laments to the camera: "My worst nightmare has come true. She lost her purity, to a boy she hardly even knew." Another girl rattles off her credits as a troublemaker: "Fighting, vandalizing, trespassing, terrorist threats, and doing illegal drugs." What, no overdue library books? When the girls are finally cleared for entry into the main prison—after Leanna, to her mortification, has had a white jumpsuit draped around midsection her to conceal her non-regulation shorts—their first encounter with the prison population comes when Green Eyes barks at them from behind a thick, dirty-looking window, like a vision of the Hellmouth demanding fresh meat.

When Beyond Scared Straight begins to transcend camp, it's largely thanks to Cecilia, a twelve-year-old who looks like Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes might have if she'd never had a minute's worth of fun in life. "When I was like, two or something," she remembers, "my mom told my grandma to watch us, and she never came back." Turns out this is the day of their big reunion; to Cecilia's apparent surprise, her mom is milling around in the prison yard when the girls are herded past. ("She just got out!" she mutters.) Beyond Scared Straight more than flirts with exploitation, just like all the A & E tragic-reality shows, but a lot of tasteful, well-crafted dramas will play out their full runs this year without delivering an emotional punch as effective as the sight of Rachael, Cecilia's mother, dropping to her knees and begging, "This ain't the place for you! Please straighten up," adding, "I'm sorry you had to see me in here." 

People will keep debating the efficacy of programs like this for keeping kids out of jail. While you're watching, a more pressing question that pops up is, what exactly are the prisoners getting out of it? At times, the cons are like people working in a Halloween haunted house, having what looks like a good time trying to make some spoiled little princess drop a load in her pants. But there are also plenty of moments when the women's maternal concern for the direction of these strangers' lives seems genuine. The most compelling, and believable, moments may be when the cons seem both genuinely angry and genuinely concerned at the same time, wanting the best for the girls but also truly pissed off that they haven't made the most of the advantages they might assume the girls have had that they themselves were denied. (Beyond Scared Straight can only brief us on how the girls are doing a month after their visit to Chowchilla, and the results are encouraging in some cases, less so in others. It's worth pointing out that the girl who seems, at the end, to have benefitted least from the experience is also the one the cons single out for their harshest judgment, refusing to believe her claims to have seen the light. Clearly prison life is very good for your bullshit detector.) And when Green Eyes stops shouting at her charges and just stares at them, wonderingly, the hard-to-define mixture of regret and tenderness and fury in her face can take your breath away. On some level, a connection is definitely made. At the end, one of the girls is shown writing a letter to one of the cons, telling her, "You are in my prayers," being careful to add, "Tell Diabla hi for me, please."

Stray observations

—I'm guessing that Green Eyes' favorite movie is Full Metal Jacket. If the prison wanted to reward her for her good service, they ought to try and arrange a conjugal visit with R. Lee Ermey.

—Sample dialogue, on the way to the prison: "You know, in prison, they don't get to sleep in." "If I was a guard at the prison, I'd let my prisoners sleep in." "Yeah, but it's not up to the guard, it's up to the President of the United States that works in the prison." There is also a memorable image of the girls trying to master, with mixed success, the concept of "forming a straight line". It's kind of a stunner at the end when we're told that some of them have really improved their grades in school. In general, Beyond Scared Straight is a powerful rebuke to Joss Whedon's Law that anyone who turns bad automatically raises their I.Q.

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