Back in 1979, film producer/director Arnold Shapiro won a Best Documentary Academy Award for the film "Scared Straight," which looked at three juvenile delinquents and their time spent with actual convicts in the hope that their look inside prison life will deter them from spending their lives in a jail cell. When A&E premiered "Beyond Scared Straight" last year, with Shapiro still at the helm as an Executive Producer, the first episode became A&E's most watched original series launch in its history with 3.7 million viewers. With the second season of the series launching tonight, our Jim Halterman talked with Shapiro about why audiences respond to such dark subject matter, the changes in the new season and how he feels the television landscape changes over the years has been a good thing for documentaries.
Jim Halterman: Going into the second season, there are some changes in the show, right?
Arnold Shapiro: What's different about season two is that we decided to focus our twelve episodes on jails instead of prisons, which we did in season one. I learned that jails are every bit as scary and frightening and dangerous as prisons are and I didn't realize that until doing this season but that's absolutely true. Every person who winds up in State Prison has come through jail. That's where you go when you're arrested and jail has some pretty scary people in it.
JH: Why the shift in focus from prisons to jails? Did you feel you were getting something different in jails that you weren't getting in prisons?
AS: First of all, there aren't as many prison programs as I wish there were. Most States actually don't have prison programs. Some States have them but they don't allow filming in their prisons for any reason. Some of the programs just aren't that interesting so we feel that we got the best of the prison programs with season one so we decided to focus on jails.
JH: With so many reality shows and documentaries on the air, we as viewers might take it for granted in terms of the access you're able to get. Was it easy to gain access to the jail programs?
AS: That's a good question because obviously it was easy with the places we wound up filming but we did approach some jails that just said they didn't want their programs filmed or they don't allow anything filmed in their programs or anywhere else. Those would be the main two reasons. Not everyone welcomes television and that's a reality. You would think from reality television that everybody wants to be on television but that's not the case when it comes to law enforcement.
JH: The show did so well last season when it's not an easy subject to watch so why do you think audiences responded so well?
AS: First, they know it's real and a lot of people like to see behind-the-scenes looks of all kinds of things and most of them are reality shows. I don't call this a reality show because I don't think it is and I've done reality shows like 'Big Brother.' This is pure documentary; it's live theater. We go there, we pre-interview the kids on camera, we have a sense of what their lives are like and the illegal and dangerous things they're doing but once we start filming in the jails we have no idea what happens and we've had some very unpredictable things happen. You remember in season one when Cecilia saw her mother in the yard at Chowchilla? Nobody expected that. I think a second reason is there is a suspense element built into this.
Once you get to know the teens and they enter the jail you're very curious to see who is going to be effected in what way and who is going to change and who isn't going to change. You have to wait until the end when we do our one-month follow-up. I think the third reason is there are a lot of parents and a lot of families that are really struggling with these same issues. We've gotten a lot of letters and emails that indicate that a lot of parents make their kids watch this just on television hoping that just watching will help them. Not going through the program but just watching the program. I remember that with the original 'Scared Straight' and the same thing happened. People were sending us letters saying that they watched it and, as a result of watching the film, they changed their behavior and I never anticipated that but it happened then and it's happening now.
JH: Is it safe to say that these jail programs are the last resort for a lot of these kids?
AS: You're exactly right. This is a preview of their future and not everybody gets a preview of their future. There are states where you can be sentenced to an adult jail at age 16 or 17 and a lot of these kids are 15, 16 and 17 and they just wind up in that very jail. It becomes very real for them and none of these kids have a realistic idea of what jail is like. They're beliefs are based on the media and rap music and being cool and hanging out and being with tough guys. Well, they quickly come to find out that jail is ugly and horrible and frightening in every way possible and your freedom is taken away and you no longer have a computer or cell phone or a refrigerator to go get a snack whenever you want. You may have to fight for your possessions with somebody every day and you could get raped or gang-raped by people bigger than you. It's really just an unbelievably awful way to live and the kids see that and they're witnessing it from the inmates who are telling them about it and threatening them.
JH: As a producer, you're doing twelve episodes in different jails but are the jail programs different enough so the shows are not repetitive?
AS: I have to write for A&E, before they approve us filming, how that program is different or to use Jewish terminology, how is this program different from all the other programs. [Laughs.] The fact is, each one has some element to it that the others don't. Obviously they are similarities but each one is different. We even have an all-night program in an isolated cellblock where kids are kept overnight and awakened for a count every two hours. So, every one of the programs have different elements. Some are all girls, some are all boys and some are both so we had some variety there.
JH: I felt like you could also do a series on the people who work in these jobs with these kids. Did you get a sense of that?
AS: I think most people aren't aware that the officers and the deputies that run these programs are volunteers. They do it on their own time and they don't get paid for it. Of course, the inmates don't get paid or get any benefits at all; they just really want to help the kids. It's a win-win situation for everybody. I get the sense that these officers, at least the ones I'm in touch with, are compassionate people who care about young people, who want to make a difference and they want to help.
JH: What else will we see in the coming episodes?
AS: In one of the programs, a juvenile actually gets thrown out of the program. He becomes so disruptive...he's just out of control so they throw him out and it's interesting to see what happens to him. Does he change even though he didn't complete the program? If you watch a lot of these episodes, the correctional officers and deputies are always challenging the kids because they really want them to see that they aren't as tough as they think they are. They'll get right in their face and say 'Go ahead! Take a swing at me.' Of course, nobody ever does until this girl takes a swing at this female officer and afterwards they asked her 'Why did you hit her?' and she said 'Because she told me to!' They said 'Do you do everything you're told to do? If I told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?' She said 'Yes.' Unbelievable dialogue. Then we have one program that takes place over one week, not one day or one night, because it not only involves the jail but it involves taking the kids to the morgue, to an emergency room, to a funeral home, to a courthouse [and] to the Sheriff's office. It focuses on alcohol and drugs and it's a really comprehensive program because it shows all sides of what can happen to you medically, legally and, of course, the jail time.
JH: One general question, since television has become such a broad marketplace now, does it make your job of producing reality and documentaries easier?
AS: I think in terms of documentaries, which is what I like to do the most, I think it has made it easier because there are more outlets than just the broadcast networks, which don't tend to do many documentaries anymore. Then you have PBS, which does a lot of them but the answer is yes when it comes to documentaries. I guess it would be true for everything because now there are original dramas on cable and there are also sitcoms on basic cable, which is new. I think the landscape is really changing and when you're in the middle of change, it's kind of hard to know where it's all going but I think it's a good thing. Obviously, it shrinks the audience size for any given outlet, with the exception of 'American Idol,' which seems to attract every American alive, but when we premiered for season one, we were the highest rated original series premiere in the history of A&E and I don't know if we're going to do that well coming back for season two but I hope we get a sizeable audience.
"Beyond Scared Straight" airs Thursdays at 10:00/9:00c on A&E.