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Interview with Arnold Shapiro

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Some cry; some want to leave the prison or jail

Arnold Shapiro

What inspired you to make the original Scared Straight documentary?

I first read about the Rahway State Prison, New Jersey programme in Reader's Digest Magazine in 1978. After further research, I determined that it was a positive, effective programme to help deter at-risk teens from further criminal acts; and that it would make a powerful documentary that could influence viewers and other prisons that might consider starting similar programs. It did achieve both my goals. I created the title, Scared Straight, for the film, but now most of these programs are referred to as "scared straight" programmes. The name has become iconic.

How have the US inmate intervention programmes changed since you began filming them?

Today's intervention programs are much more varied in approaches than the original Rahway programme (which they subsequently named after my film, Scared Straight). Many programs still use fear and intimidation, but most programs have some sort of counseling component (in groups or one-on-one), which was not present 34 years ago. Also, many programmes involve the parents, which I believe is always beneficial.

How scared is too scared?

I've witnessed and filmed dozens of these programmes and have never seen any teen be "too scared." Some cry; some want to leave the prison or jail. But I've never seen or heard about any teen having a medical problem or psychological breakdown as a result of witnessing or hearing about the harsh realities of life behind bars, or being yelled at or threatened.

How do the inmates and teens react to each other? Are there any extraordinary cases?

For the most part, even the toughest teens who are defiant and boastful when entering the prison or jail, break down and listen and take in - to one degree or another - what's being said. I've filmed hundreds of teens at this point. The effects upon the teens vary. Some leave the institution and starting that day make a 180-degree change. Some change in a positive way over time. Some change but slip back without family or community support.

Some don't change at all. But every programme can point to amazing success stories. And every inmate will tell you that even if just one kid out of a group who attends is changed in a positive way, then all their effort was worth it. Overall, I've found the ratio of change over days, weeks, and months to be greater than 50% depending on the individual programme. As for extraordinary cases, almost all of them are extraordinary.

Can you tell us about what some of the kids are doing since taking part in the show?

Now in season three of Beyond Scared Straight, we have filmed well over 150 juveniles. Many dropouts have returned to school. Many kids who were disrespectful, if not actually abusive towards their parent(s), have stopped being that way. Some sexually active girls have stopped being that way, or at least have started practicing safe sex. Many kids who were drinking or using drugs have stopped or curbed this behaviour. Many kids who were shoplifting, robbing, or beating up people have stopped those behaviors outright. Some kids have stopped their criminal activities but continue to smoke pot believing that it is not harmful and no big deal. Overall, I observe more positive changes than kids staying the same way.

Does the US justice system work? Or is it not just the teens that need help?

I am not an expert on saying whether the US Justice System works. I suppose it works well some of the time and poorly some of the time. But trying to reach at-risk and criminally active kids before "the cement dries" and they're too set in their ways is the goal of all these deterrence programmes whatever they're named, whatever techniques they use. It's prevention and early intervention to try and keep today's kids from becoming tomorrow's convicts.