Prison life is horrific, and for young offenders, it’s even worse. More than 30 years after its release, Scared Straight continues to act as a deterrent.
Everyone knows prison is brutal. Most would rather not think about it.
The men inside casually discuss committing appalling crimes. They wallow in cold, cramped cells with their volatile, dangerous peers.
Some are young when they first committed their crimes, like Eric Smith, who at 13 lured 4-year-old Derrick Robie into the woods near his house, strangled him, and smashed in his face with rocks.
More often than not, they’ve had horrific childhoods. This is where my sympathy lies—with criminals like David Mason, who was executed in 1993 after going on a killing spree. In Mason’s case, were the murders committed the when he pulled the trigger? Or did they originate 15 years earlier, when he was locked in a windowless room dubbed “the dungeon” by his fundamentalist Christian parents? When he was beaten with pancake turner, and forced to wear a soiled diaper on his head to school whenever he wet the bed? When his father would strap him to his workbench, gag him, and beat him unconscious?
Once incarcerated, everyone deals with prison life differently. Do you give up? Lash out? Or do you adapt? We can’t even speculate how we’d react, because we exist within a context and possess a perspective that is so far removed from that of prison life.
Some prisoners pass the days focusing on old (or newfound) passions, using what little resources they have. They make doll houses, paint on the backs of postcards with M&Ms, write novels, or compose music.
Others unravel further behind bars.
“When I got incarcerated, I declared war on the state of Indiana,” announces “predatory” inmate Darren Bailey on MSNBC’s Lockup: Raw. “They gave me an excessive sentence as a result of my crime. Well, I’m giving you excessive violence as the result of my anger.”
The HBO documentary Gladiator Days examines the case of Utah State Prison inmate Troy Kell. In 1994 Kell, a white supremacist who was already serving a life sentence for committing a murder at the age of 18, killed black inmate Lonnie Blackmon in plain sight of prisoners and guards.
It was all caught on tape.
In the video, Kell methodically stabs Blackmon 67 times as unarmed guards watch behind locked-down doors. Once Blackmon stops breathing, Kell, adrenaline surging, paces around the room, drying his bloodied hands with a towel. “Let’s get some white power jumpin’ off in here,” he barks. Fellow inmates hoot and holler from their cells. A full five minutes pass before guards dressed in riot gear bull-rush the room to subdue Kell.
His interview is chilling:
Producer: Why did you stab him so many times?
Kell: All I can tell is—he kept moving. I just stabbed the shit out of him until he didn’t move anymore.
Scared Straight conveys, first hand, the realities of prison life: the unpredictability, the loneliness, the monotony, and the inmates—like Troy Kell, locked up for life—who have nothing to lose. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, where guards exist merely to maintain order, not to protect the lives and well-being of individual inmates.
Teens who enter adult prisons are most vulnerable. They often have no idea what they’re in for, but the reality sinks in quickly—usually at the first meal—when they’re harassed by hardened inmates who taunt and threaten them, or coo at the “fresh meat” before their eyes.
This is the beauty of Arnold Shapiro’s 1978 documentary Scared Straight: it provides at-risk teens a preview of the path they’re on, a taste of the future before them, while giving them the opportunity to change their ways.
Shapiro’s film documents a group of juvenile delinquents, cocky and self-assured, as they enter prison for the first time. Their confident demeanor quickly crumbles as they sit helplessly before the “lifers” who berate and verbally abuse them, while divulging snapshots of the misery they endure on a daily basis.
When we get sexual desires, who do you think we get? And don’t tell me each other!
Upon leaving the prison, a number of the shell-shocked teens vow to avoid prison at all costs.
30 years later, the film, which won an Oscar for best documentary feature, is still brutally effective.
“I still get comments about Scared Straight from people who tell me they were juvenile offenders,” Shapiro explains. “Their parents made them watch it, and it was either the single cause of their change or a major factor.”
Shapiro continues to be amazed at Scared Straight‘s success; it has since become a cultural icon (see: Prison Mike from The Office), and a number of prisons have instituted similar programs.
“When I made Scared Straight, I had no idea it was going to become an iconic film. I had no idea I would continue to receive letters from parents and teachers and young people, year after year after year, once it was in educational distribution. It just never went away.”
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