Twenty-three years after he filmed maximum security inmates at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison berating troubled teens for the Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight!, Arnold Shapiro is back on the cell block once more to capture inmate-run intervention programs for at-risk youth.
The veteran director/producer is revisiting the concept for Beyond Scared Straight, a seven-episode documentary series airing on A&E this season that profiles five juvenile delinquents as they spend a day touring a prison and follows up with them a month later to see if the attempt to shock them onto the straight and narrow worked. Unlike the original film and its handful of sequels, the one-hour TV format effectively lets the show’s intimidating stars give life lessons to all of America.
“A couple years ago, I started wondering how many of these programs still exist, how they changed, and started looking into that,” Shapiro, the series’ executive producer, explains over the phone from his office in Los Angeles. “And A&E was very interested in having me look at it.
“I visited several programs in four states and when I saw what I saw, I knew it would be good television,” he adds. “I just wanted to make sure it translated into worthwhile television. At this point in my career, having been a producer for four decades, I don’t want to do junk – not that I ever have. I want to do meaningful programs and this is meaningful.”
When the first episode aired on Jan. 13, it attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched original series premiere in the network’s history.
Shapiro, who has produced several reality and documentary series over the past 40 years, including Rescue 911 and Big Brother, is on set for every shoot – unusual for an EP. He just returned from 12 days in Maryland where the crew had to contend with a blizzard. The show is tricky to tape, requiring a lot of travel to penitentiaries in remote cities and security to watch over camera equipment during shoots in the dangerous neighborhoods some of the kids call home.
A new element introduced in the years since the original Scared Straight! is the counseling session toward the end of the tour. “[In the '70s] they didn’t really know the kids. They didn’t find out the kids’ stories. All they did was impart to them the harsh, brutal realities of prison life and hope they would be scared straight and a lot of them were,” he says. “These inmates have done everything the kids have done and more. No kid can say to an inmate, ‘You don’t understand my situation.’”
For each episode, two cameras follow the kids as they visit prison yards, solitary confinement cells, and locations where fatal incidents of violence occurred. After the fright, the inmates drop their hardened facades and offer the kids one-on-one life coaching. Shapiro and his crew then return a month later to find out how they fared. The shoot results in 35 hours of footage that editors whittle down to 44 minutes in marathon edits that last late into the night and through weekends.
Shapiro likens the show to live television. Production obstacles aside, his biggest worry is always the outcome. Will the kids learn anything? “We’re getting more positive results than not,” he says, but declines to give a percentage for fear of spoiling future episodes.
“If eight kids went through the program and none of them changed it would imply that the program was a failure and our episode was a failure,” he says. “We have to see success. But we have no control over that. So that’s probably the biggest challenge – holding your breath and hoping for the best.”