January 21, 2016

Scared Straight Will Open Your Eyes

Note: In preparation for launching my new novel, With The Silent Knowledge, set in an Illinois prison in the 1970s, I went back through my files looking for pieces I wrote about prisons and corrections in the late ’70s. I found two columns I wrote at the time about the documentary filmmaker Arnold Shapiro’s Scared Straight series.
    The first one was published in the Robinson (IL) Daily News and other papers when the prison population in Illinois was about 10,000. Today it’s approaching 50,000. Many other states have seen similar gains. While the U.S. population accounts for only about 5 percent of the world population, our prison population accounts for 23 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. In Illinois alone, the annual budget for taking care of the inmates is $1.2 billion or an average of about $24,000 per inmate. And Illinois politicians haven’t even agreed upon the budget this year.
    The Scared Straight program seemed to be working well for young men and women back in the ’70s. I don’t know how effective it has been since—and some say it’s ineffective—but with the increase in prison population, nothing else seems to be working.   The column follows. I hope you’ll check out the novel at www.talespress.com.
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“This program contains explicit crude language and graphic descriptions that may not be suitable for some viewers”—warned an ad in the Chicago-area TV Guide for the showing of Scared Straight, a controversial program to steer people away from prison.
    And it meant just what it said. I heard language on that program that I don’t even hear in the halls of the high school where I teach. It took me back to the days of the Marine Corps and Menard Prison. The language was real, the tones harsh. They cut to the bone.
    I’d never heard language like that on television. George C. Scott as Gen George Patton sounded like a choirboy compared to the inmates and younger toughs seen in Scared Straight.
What the program purported to show was that “scaring the crime out of kids isn’t pretty … but it works.” Here’s how:
    At Rahway (NJ) State Prison in 1976, inmates established a program to show kids in trouble what it’s like to be in prison. The program is called the Juvenile Awareness Program.
    Kids from youth homes are sent to Rahway to serve “three-hour sentences.” The sentence includes a tour of the prisons and some expert testimony from inmates who volunteer for the program.
Sixty minutes of watching Scared Straight is much different than watching 60 minutes of a James Cagney prison movie. Three hours of participating in the program is reported to have a lasting effect on a kid’s life.
    Testing and diagnostics are not part of the experience for these kids. They are replaced with the sounds of a Marine Corps boot camp or an unwanted confrontation with a Chicago policeman on a dark street.
    The only thing the inmates spare the kids is the actual physical violence. But they are threatened so convincingly that they don’t know if they’ll be hit or not. The television program, Scared Straight, is narrated by Peter Falk and is a one-hour presentation. Young kids in trouble are introduced and talk about their image of themselves, their goals, their lives. They are young tough kids, street kids, male and female. They like their way of life, are proud of it.
    One of them brags that he might get stopped once in a while, but you’ll know he’s going to be back again. That’s the way he is. That’s the way a lot of them are. The language is tough, but it doesn’t have the bite of the older inmates’ language. These kids aren’t afraid of going to prison—at first. Seventeen of them, black and white, male and female, visit the prison for their three-hour sentence. It’s a different world immediately. The tough kids show none of their earlier cockiness. Nor can they use their own terror tactics to control life around them.
    They’re no match for the older, tougher and wiser inmates who begin teaching them almost as soon as the kids step in prison. As they tour the prison, they walk down a cellblock, inmates call after them, expressing their sexual preference—young boys sometimes.
The young kids are dominated, harassed, threatened, educated, intimidated, cajoled and accursed by inmate volunteers. The only thing the inmates can’t do is hit the kids. That doesn’t stop them from threatening.
    But the kids don’t know the inmates won’t hit them. They know the inmates are doing a lot of time and don’t have any real way of being punished. The kids are scared, too. That makes a difference.
The inmates describe what prison is like. Each of them has a different mannerism or quirk. One wants everybody to look at him all the time, never smiling. One by one they talk about homosexual rape, prostitution among inmates and the violence. A black inmate takes a young kid by the belt and guides him to another inmate and asks if he’s got a cigarette. The inmate gives him a cigarette and buys the kid. That’s the way it’s done. The kids are learning. They see raw reality. And they’re stripped of their image, sitting helplessly under the wrath of the angry inmates. Kids are taunted until it almost seems one of them will blow. But nobody does. They’re two scared. And they stay that way.
    Of the 17 kids who attended the taped session, 16 of them went straight three months after the taping. One girl was busted for a minor infraction and given a suspended sentence. At the end of a year, none of the 17 had been in trouble again. That’s how the program works.
    Since its inception in 1976, there have been no major incidents, and almost 10,000 kids have served the sentence. Ninety percent of them are steered into going straight, the program claims.
    After their image has been stripped and they see life as it is, the kids say they have the insight to see that they need counseling. And the Lifer’s Hotline is available to them when they think they’re going off track and need somebody to talk to who has been where they are.
    The film was crude, explicit and graphic for sure. The program is all of that and more. It ain’t pretty, but it does seem to work.