Arnold Shapiro’s work first appeared on the U.S. national radar in 1978, with Scared Straight!, his graphic documentary depicting New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison’s “Lifer’s Program.” Since then, he has repeatedly turned his camera on difficult issues: child abuse, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol addiction. Over the last quarter-century, Shapiro’s commitment to social awareness has earned him over 150 awards. He has produced 17 television series, five television movies, and more than 50 primetime documentaries and specials.
The occasion for our conversation is the 25th anniversary of Scared Straight!, commemorated by the DVD pairing of the original film with its 1999 where-are-they-now sequel, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later. He insists he’s not an expert in prison advocacy and reform, but his passion for the project propels and enlivens our telephone interview, despite the fact that at the time, the sun has barely risen on his home in Los Angeles, California.
PopMatters: You made Scared Straight! fairly early in your career. What was your impetus for the film?
Arnold Shapiro: I got the idea from an article in the January 1978 issue of Readers Digest that talked about Rahway State Prison’s “Lifer’s Program.” As I read it, I kept thinking to myself that this would make the most amazing film, but I didn’t believe that it would change lives. I wanted to do it because I thought the publicity would inspire other prisons to start similar programs. I never imagined I’d be talking to you about the DVD release 25 years later. In my mind, this was a small project. I didn’t think that it would win an Academy Award and eight Emmys.
PM: I know that recently you’ve been involved in the production of Big Brother, but Scared Straight seems like the ultimate reality programming. What was it like for you onstage, watching the scene in front of you unfold?
AS: Powerful. Scary. Shocking. Being there, seeing it happen live, is ten times scarier than watching it onscreen. You don’t know what is going to happen next, how the kids will react or what the inmates are going to do. Obviously, there are certain restrictions as to what the inmates are allowed to do. For instance, they’re not allowed to physically assault audience members, but they allude to the kids that they can do anything, so that fear you see in their eyes is real.
PM: How were you able to capture such raw emotion on film?
AS: I attended 10 different sessions, with 10 different batches of kids, before taping the one featured in the movie. Every session was unique and something happened during every group that made me think, “Oh, I wish I had the camera here.” I was so grateful that the session we ended up filming turned out to be so powerful. We had just one shot at it. If it didn’t take, it didn’t take.
PM: Scared Straight situates viewers as omniscient observers of the action. Why did you choose that approach?
AS: Well, the vast majority of the film plays without interruption because we didn’t really need it. Nothing that we could have staged would equal the intensity; the film didn’t need anything except to be edited. The program lasts about two hours. The officers show the kids the cells and general prison conditions and then they’re on stage with the inmates for about an hour and a half. We had to edit all that footage down to about 40 minutes for the film. That was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process, deciding what to edit out.
PM: What made you want to revisit the kids for Scared Straight! 20 Years Later?
AS: Well, the original film opens with a segment where the kids describe their illegal activities. They talk with such bravado and arrogance. But after speaking to the Lifers, these same kids were in a state of shock. I wanted to see if that was a temporary reaction or a life-changing event. And, of course, we later discover that most of these kids did turn their lives around. But to me, one of the most shocking things that came out of Scared Straight! 20 Years Later was what I found out as I was re-interviewing the kids (I still call them kids, even though they’re adults in their mid-30s). Anyway, they told me a lot more about the illegal things they were doing at time; it turns out that they were involved in much more serious criminal activities. Weapons were often involved, and they didn’t tell me that at first.
PM: So it was more than just goofing off in class and petty theft.
AS: Exactly. And the major eye-opening element was how much drugs and alcohol played a part in the lives and illegal activities of both the kids and the inmates. This was certainly mentioned and referenced in the original film, but it was emphasized when we met up again. Scared Straight! 20 Years Later turned out to be the strongest anti-drug, anti-alcohol film of 1999. I didn’t intend to do that, but now parents and teachers can show the two films together and get a complete picture of the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
PM: What do you say to people who claim programs like Scared Straight! don’t work? For instance, in 2000, the journal Crime and Delinquency published a study that concluded, “There is little evidence to suggest that the program is a deterrent to subsequent juvenile crime” and that, in some cases, the “evidence strongly suggests that it leads to more crime by participants”?
AS: The only people who were ever opposed to the film were some academics. I have never, ever met a police officer, probation officer or youth counselor who didn’t think that the program and the film were effective, and they’re the troops in the trenches. These academics can do all the studies they want, but their findings don’t match the reality of what’s going on. Why would any sane police officer or parole officer keep bringing in kids week after week, month after month if Scared Straight! was failing? They bring them in because it works. The testimonials that I receive from kids and their parents count for a lot a lot more than some study.
PM: So you believe that by watching a documentary, kids can overcome the behavioral patterns and depressive socio-economic climates that make criminal activity an attractive option?
AS: Well, for most people, going to prison and seeing the film needs to be accompanied by follow-up support and counseling. That’s an important component. I’ve gotten countless letters from parents and kids where just watching the film changed their lives. Others needed counseling. If you’re going to start a new lifestyle, you need support for that. The film shocks people, it acts as a cattle prod, but kids need support for their new lifestyle. But this program does work. I’ll go to my grave believing that it works, knowing it works. This film has contributed to saving more kids than any academic study ever has. Let them do their studies. Scared Straight! is getting results.