"You were convicted of murder in [Words Illegible] "Yes."
Frank Bindhammer answers this question as matter-of-factly as if it had been, "How are you today?" Now 39, he spent most of his today?" Now 39, he spent most of his20s and 30s, and most of the '60s and '70s, in a maximum-security New Jersey slammer called Rahway State Prison.
During his 15 years there, Bindhammer not only earned a hgih-school equivalency diploma, but he also helped found and operate an inmaterun and inmate-unded project called the Juvenile Awareness program. The gist of this is that a couple dozen crime-prone teen-agers are brought into the prison every day so that lifeterm convicts can dissuade them from the loser's life by subjecting them to threats, insults and all manner of verbal abuse.
In short, they try to scare the hell out of them. The program, considered in some circles a great success where many other programs have failed, is profiled in "Scared Straight!" one of the most powerful and harrowing films ever made for television.
Commissioned by Golden West Broadcasting for airing on KTLA in Los Angeles last year, the film is being shown this week on an additional 65 stations throughout the country, including, in Washington, Channel 5 (WTTG), where it will be seen tonight at 10.
As narrator Peter Falk warns viewers four times during the film, the documentary, a record of one youthful group's terror-filled visit to the prison, is filled with "language that is prison, is filled with "language that is explicit, foul and brutal." The prisoners' vocabulary includes every one of the seven dirty worlds that shook up the Supreme Court. But as Falk says, in narration written by producer-director Arnold Shapiro, "The whole point of this program would be lost by censoring what we filmed."
What they filmed was a group of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who'd been involved in grime -- some since the age of 6 -- paying their visit to Rahway. Shapiro first filmed them on the outside as they anticipated this ordeal, and most of them talked tough and cocky. Shapiro also filmed their reactions after they came out. Tunes by that time had beguh to change.
"I would take anything you have if you give me the chance," boasts a young man whose ambition is to become "a professionalthief." After a three-hour browbeathing, he announces sheepishly, "I changed my mind."
According to Bindhammer, now paroled from Rahway, the kids aren't just faking redemption for the camera. He claims the success rate with the program is as high as 80 and 90 percent -- that most of the kids who go through it leave the criminal class and enter the mainstream of society.
Shapiro and Bindhammer admit the film is not only a document but a piece of progaganda. Thet hope that crime-inclined youngsters who see it will be seared straight right in their living rooms, and they think the Rahway program should be tried at other prisons. In California, where the film caused a sensation when televised last year -- and drew a record audience for a local documentary estimated as high as 1 million viewers -- other prisons are now trying similar approaches, though not without controversy or distress.
Shapiro, whose film has been nominated for an Oscar as best documentary, declares, "It is a great film -- not because we're great filmmakers, but because the subject matter is great."
Bindhammer, who is not seen in the film but participated in "hundreds" of youth-badgering sessions himself, is convinced the movie has the power to alter lives. The Signal Companies, a major owner of Golden West, are sending him and Shapiro around the country to ballyhoo the film and the Juvenile Awareness concept.
"You see, the media has tended to glamorize criminals and convicts," Bindhammer says. "Particularly Hollywood. They give these kids a Hollywood stereotype image of a criminal. And what we actually do in our program is totally destroy any illusions they have about convicts or criminals being cool, hard people. We make ourselves appear to be the most despicable people imaginable."
As the kids, mostly boys, are walking into the prison, they hear prisoners from their cells yelling what Falk calls "homosexual taunts" like "I'm gonna do somethin' really nasty to you." Locked in a large dingy room with "lifers," they are subjected to brutalization and humiliation that stops just short of physical violence.
One convicted murderer summarizes the barbarism of prison life like this: "When I wake up in the morning, I think, "Maybe I'll have to kill somebody today.'"
Bindhammer says that though the program is successful now, it was met with skepticism by both prison officials and many prisoners when first proposed in 1976. Some prisoners thought the lifers were only trying to curry favor with the prison administration through this do-good project. Bindhammer also says he thinks the sessions have been as thereapeutic and beneficial for the inmates who participate as for the youngsters who sit there shivering and shaking on folding chairs and wooden benches.
Shapiro, in turn, was met with opposition from the lifers when he proposed putting a session on film. It seems other filmmakers had been to the prison, promised the lifers such things as their own videotape copies ofte finished films, and then never delivered. The lfers felt they had been exploited.
"I came down hard on Arnold," says Bindhammer, who is very fastidious about grinding out his cigarettes over and over, until no spark could possibly remain. "We felt we were being exploited by the media. Quite naturally I wanted to know precisely what his motives were. Of course it was rather embarrassing for Arnold."
"They put me in a room," says Shapiro. "For the first time in your life, you're sitting there with six men convicted of first-degree murder and you're on the defensive, which with these men takes about four seconds. It was pretty frightening. They're all 6 feet tall. I'm convinced that to be a convict in that prison, you have to be 6 feet tall."
"Come on, Arnold," says Bindhammer.
"They're all big and memacing-looking and they're yelling and frightening and some of them look crazed," says Shapiro.
Surprisingly, the unusally harsh language in the program did not language in the program did not evoke a hailstorm of complaints at the station where it was first shown. "I was amazed," Shapiro says. "A Lot of parents said, 'Could you air it earlier next time, so the kids can watch?'"
Bindhammer has vowed to continue working with juvenile offenders now that he is a free man. His deep-dyed intensity suggests that he has the determination to make something of what might have been wasted life.
"I feel sorry for every kid that participates in our program," he says, but the lifers never express pity during the sessions. Afterward, Bindhammer says, some of them return to their cells and cry.
He speaks calmly and methodically of his own criminal career, using official judicialese like "incarceration" and "laceration" as he talks.
"My first encounterment with the law was at the age of 8," he says. "I was incarcerated for truancy and theft. I was convinced by people that I was in fact no good, and I had become determined to be the best no-good person I could be. And I did all the things that was expected of a no-good person. I knew it was wrong. But if that was what was expected of me, that was what I was going to do."
He has a long and detailed description of the crime that got him sentenced to life in prison -- there was "a motor vehicle violation, an accident," he stumbled away from the scene of it, he says, a stranger approached with a gun, Bindhammer thought his fiance was in danger, a scuffle ensued, three shots were fired, and a court ruled that the fourth, which killed the man, was fired while Bindhammer held the gun.
"It was only after my apprehension that I learned that the person was in fact an off-duty patrolman." This was in Newark in 1963. Asked what became of his fiance, Bindhammer says, "God only knows."
Bindhammer finally earned parole -- the first of the Rahway lifers group to do so -- but on the day he was to be released, "A classification officer came up to me and said, 'Frank, I'm sorry, but we just discovered that you owe us one more year.' Bindhammer went through hearings and court petitions before finally being released "Sept. the 29th, 1978."
He saw the free light of day for the first time since the year President Kennedy died.
"I can tell you that I am still experiencing to some degree exactly what I experienced the first day of my release," he says. "I can walk down the street sometimes and watch kids playing in the street and say, 'No, this isn't real.' Because after a long period of time, prison becoes reality and the free world a fantasy."
Whether the Juvenile Awareness program represents the answeer to juvenile crime is highly debatable -- but it seems an answer for now, with no better ones in the wings. Bindhammer has all kinds of ambitions for the program and for "Scared Straight!" as well.
"People have to start taking an active interest, acknowledge their social and moral obligations, get involved in what's happinening," he says. "They cry if they pick up a newspaper and read about a politician taking graft -- they are automatically personally affronted. 'This person is ripping us off.' But they're ripping themselves off on a daily basis by ignoring these obligations."
The film won't straighten all those who see it, Bindhammer and Shapiro concede, but they believe it will heighten awarenesses right and left. Crudely shot, but perhaps all the more effective for that reason, "Scared Straight!" is alarming, gripping and heartbreaking. It is television in the first degree