'Scared Straight!': How the media can exploit a social program

Still another made-for-TV, pseudo-realistic "docu-drama" comes careening out of life and onto the screens this week. As is the case with most of such fictionalized reality, despite seeming good intentions what emerges is modified rip-off -- laundered exploitation.

Well, maybe not so laundered.

"Scared Straight, Another Story" (CBS, Thursday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings) evolves from last year's controversial syndicated programming sensation, "Scared Straight," a tough, coarse, shocking documentary about the Juvenile Awareness Program devised and operated by the inmates of the Rahway, N.J., State Prison. The documentary was designed literally to scare alleged soft-core delinquents (as well as nondelinquents) "straight," to deter them from a potential life of crime by bringing them into the bowels of prison and allowing the convicts themselves to frighten the youngters with all-too-accurate accounts of homosexual rape, rats, and callous treatment. In some ways it seemed to achieve its purpose of deterring potential criminal behaviour. It also got extraordinarily high ratings for the stations which dared to run it, and it won several TV prizes.

However, some social welfare agencies were not so impressed. Neither were some parents of children utilized in the show who felt that their nondelinquent kids were indelibly labeled as JDs unfairly. Later there were additional studies which both confirmed and denied the effectiveness of the scare treatment. Final results are still not in. But that doesn't stop the topical TV exploiters.

Producer Arnold Shapiro was busy thinking of ways to utilize the concept so that the treatment could get wider -- and more profitable -- exposure. A series , perhaps? No, that's too much! How about a two-hour made-for-TV movie then?

Now, here it is: starring Cliff De Young as a white welfare worker living amid the minority juveniles, treated in this program as if he were Margaret Mead among the Samoans. Superb actor Stan Shaw plays with tough compassion the leader of a prison group which cares enough to set disturbed youngsters on the right path. He is probably the most nearly believable of all the unbelievable characters portrayed.Can it really be that awful prison conditions can result in such amazing perspective and self-analysis? Well, then, perhaps we need still another rethink.

As a warning (or come-on, depending upon your point of view), CBS has inserted the legend: "This film deals in frank and realistic manner with prison life and contains adult language." It does, but not as frank or realistic as in the original documentary. Just frank enough to lure sensation-hungry viewers.

"Scared Straight, Another Story" is well acted, well produced, well directed. It seems to me it is just, well, unnecessary.

Despite the fact that the script itself includes some disclaimers, the drama goes on its merry way with De Young talking black jive talk in order to compensate for not being black, too, in a vain attempt to be "one of the boys." Tough parents come through as villains (until they turn soft and renege in their sternness) while tough convicts turn out to be sort of heroes -- as long as they remain tough.

The story line -- what there is of it -- concerns a group of youngsters on probation at a JD center, what happens to them inside and outside the prison and the center before and after they are subjected to "the treatment." There are young lovers whose conduct seems to be condoned as long as they stay out of police trouble. The home life of the white girl is investigated, but the home life of the blacks is limited to street activities mostly.

But the case for this anti-crime approach has already been made. If it is a valid point, then it should be allowed to prove itself.

What bothers me most about both the original documentary and this new dramatization -- as a matter of fact, about the whole concept -- is that the youngsters are subjected to the details of inhumane activities (all of which are illegal) under the watchful eyes of the authorities. Besides scaring the daylights out of the youngsters, doesn't it also perpetuate their perception that the system is unfair? That our society is rife with injustice? That the only way to beat the system is to hang in there . . . tough, tougher, toughest?

Another problem I have with the two-hour special is the cuteness and cleverness of the acts of delinquency -- to some kids it will all seem like fun-and-games time. And those instant conversions all seem part of the kidding around. Too much attention is paid to the most easily corrected superficial aspects of delinquency and not enough to the much more challenging environmental aspects.As the beleaguered father says, "It's easy to be buddy-buddy with these kids. It's not so easy raising them."

"Scared Straight! Another Story" is more likely to scare parents straight than kids. And it is more likely to convince the general public than the experienced professionals.

Perhaps any theory that attempts to solve the problem of juvenile delinqueny should be listened to, tested, and studied. But does making it into a slick, glib, simplistic, in the long run cheap, entertainment help?

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