Scared Straight! (1978)

“You know if you get up and touch one of them shoes, I’m gonna break my leg off in your ass.”
— Convict, Rahway State Prison Lifer’s Program

One of the most memorable exchanges in Scared Straight! — an Academy Award winning documentary describing Rahway State Prison’s “Lifer’s Program” — occurs mid-way through the film, when a group of convicts forces 17 juvenile delinquents to take off their sneakers and throw them into the center of the room. Leering into the young faces, the convicts (each serving between 25 years to life in New Jersey’s maximum security prison) bellow, “How did you feel when I took your stuff?” As if merely posing the question will be enough to divert these young men and women — whose convictions already include arson, assault and battery, auto theft and possession and distribution of narcotics — from a life of crime.

But that, according to director Arnold Shapiro, is exactly what it does.

First released in 1979, Scared Straight! was instantly praised for its graphic depiction of prison life and innovative approach to juvenile crime prevention. The cameras watch as the delinquents are given a chance to explore Rahway’s jail cells — facilitators insist that they smell a grungy toilet — and walk past the jeering inmates housed in “the hole.” Before the afternoon is over, the teenagers will also learn the intricacies of the prison cast system, an ever-evolving hierarchy of power where, the convicts assure, people are prepared to “do bodily harm to your asshole” in order to maintain dominance.

The documentary is bookended by before-and-after interviews with the participants, and these extol the program. Before they enter the prison gates, the teenagers are a case study in arrogance and denial. Some brag about their unsavory reputations (“That’s what I’m about, looking for trouble”), while others describe the plans they’re making to advance their careers: an aspiring “professional thief” claims to be taking security classes so that he can learn to dismantle alarm systems. Three hours later, after their meeting with the convicts, these same kids emerge clearly repentant. “I don’t want to end up in there,” is a repeated mantra.

This 25th Anniversary DVD pairs the original movie with 1999’s where-are-they-now sequel, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later. The resulting combination is reminiscent of the “mental hygiene” films popularized in 1950s classrooms. The original film’s low production costs — the participants were not mic-ed individually, and often it’s difficult to hear what they’re saying — lend a decidedly filmstrip-like quality to the finished product. (This bare bones mentality extends to the DVD as well; although the disc boasts three “extras,” these amount to a biography of director Arnold Shapiro and catalog of offerings from the distribution company.) Additionally, although the program defined risqué in the late-’70s — for many networks, Scared Straight! marked the first intentional broadcast of the f-word — its subject matter is fairly tame by modern standards. It’s unlikely that these films will scare contemporary would-be hoodlums into submission.

An abundance of shag hairdos and polyester shirts isn’t all that root this documentary firmly in another generation; Shapiro’s omniscient, fly-on-the-wall camera style is in sharp contrast to recent award winning documentaries (most notably, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.) Although this choice — filming life as it unfolds — is congruent with the classic documentary style, it is not unproblematic, especially when considering the population Shapiro chooses to document. Important questions are left unaddressed by the film: to what extent are the Scared Straight! kids performing their role as “delinquents?” How is the dynamic between convicts and juveniles altered by the presence of the cameras?

Shapiro’s presence as a director isn’t felt until Scared Straight!‘s 1999 sequel, when he orchestrates a series of awkward reunions between the formerly cocky kids and the convicts, many of whom have since been paroled. Viewers are presumably on the edge of their seats: did the kids really go straight? Surprisingly, most of them did. As the sequel illustrates, 15 out of the 17 juvenile delinquents originally profiled went on to become “productive members of society.” The sequel ends with testimony from two social workers who claim that programs like Scared Straight! have inspired 80% of the at-risk teens they work with to turn their lives around. Scared Straight! and Scared Straight! 20 Years Later form the classic American morality tale of crime and redemption. These young men and women may have started down the wrong path, but they ultimately found their way back to “society.” This happy ending, however, may be a little too optimistic.

For example, neither film addresses concerns that the tactics employed by the Rahway State Prison’s Lifer’s Program may actually increase delinquent behavior in juveniles. In their analysis of nine studies that covered Scared Straight! and more moderate jail tours for troubled students, researchers found that “there is little evidence to suggest that the program is a deterrent to subsequent juvenile crime and delinquency. In contrast, the evidence strongly suggests that it leads to more crime by program participants” (Crime & Delinquency July 2000). As a result of the original film’s success, versions of Scared Straight! quickly spread from New Jersey to more than 30 states in the 1980s. However, several states later dropped or significantly changed their programs because of the research questioning their effectiveness.

Nor does Scared Straight! address the socioeconomic factors that may have played a role in the profiled teen’s criminal activities. During their “before” interviews, several of the participants commented that they only “steal what they need” from people whose “insurance would pay for it.” Most have a personal policy of not involving “little old ladies” in their criminal activity. This Robin Hood-like attitude suggests that in some cases there may be more complex reasons for these teens’ activities than simple delinquency for delinquency’s sake. To Shapiro’s credit, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later does describe the one-on-one counseling that is now a part of many of the revamped prison programs.

But even so, scant attention is paid to the fact the all of the participants pictured in this more contemporary footage are African American men; the original Scared Straight! gang was more mixed in both race and gender. What, if anything, could account for these changing demographics in the last 20 years? Shapiro’s film doesn’t offer much of an answer.

Struggles for power inform every aspect of Scared Straight!: juveniles scramble for financial security in an environment in which they’re economically depressed and convicts attempt to gain some semblance of self-respect in an institution that is designed to make them feel insignificant. While good will is surely at the heart of many of the Lifer’s Program participants, the prisoners scream just a little too loudly and intimidate just a little too much to be convincing as good Samaritans.

As voyeurs to the action, the audience is not immune to this internal debate for power and control. In many online reviews of the DVD, viewers describe the juvenile delinquents as “hoodlums” who “get what they deserve.” This suggests that at least part of the film’s success is attributable to the laudatory dynamic implicit between film and viewer: whatever sins you may have committed in the past, you are not as far gone as “these people.” And too, there is that hint of secret pleasure we may have in seeing criminals — or those on their way towards becoming criminals — being punished.

This may not be the response that Shapiro intended, but it hardly matters. Scared Straight!‘s controversial subject ensures that it will be interpreted differently by different audiences. For many in academia or social services, this DVD pairing will likely be viewed as a fascinating — albeit outdated — study on human behavior and the redeeming power of change. Others will interpret it as propaganda for those hoping America will get tough on crime. Meanwhile, for most students, the 25th anniversary of Scared Straight! is likely to be seen as just another excuse to sleep through fifth period.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.