The times are scarier now, the film arguably less so.
"Scared Straight! 10 Years Later," airing Tuesday at 9 on WFTY, offers a reprise and update of a documentary that won both an Oscar and an Emmy in 1978.
It centers on a confrontation between 17 juvenile offenders and nine inmates of New Jersey's Rahway State Prison. The juveniles, with one foot on the path to a life of crime, were to meet members of the Rahway Lifers Group and to hear in the bluntest terms what lay ahead. The prisoners' idea was to scare the bejabbers out of the kids, to confront them with the physical, psychological and sexual realities of a maximum security prison and frighten them into going straight.
When it was aired in 1978, "Scared Striaght!" was high-impact television, with the prisoners' profuse and sometimes eloquent expletives undeleted. The reprise will play to an audience perhaps a bit jaded by x-rated language on televisions wired to VCRs and cable systems. But the mental brutalization of the teens is still uncomfortable to watch.
And this time there is perspective offered, nearly a decade's worth, as Arnold Shapiro, the show's creator, visits some of the teens and Rahway inmates from the original award-winning program.
Shapiro initially saw the update as a mere three-minute postscript to the original, telling where everyone was now and how they were doing. "But as I found people, I saw there was more there, enough for an added hour."
And enough for a little sociological research. The good news is that 15 of the 17 kids were doing fine when the update was taped. "They're holding jobs, some are married, some with kids, some are going up the economic ladder," said Shapiro. "One is in prison and one has been in and out of county jails."
Among the nine lifers, only one had made parole work. Five had gotten out, Shapiro said, but four hadn't been able to stay out of trouble. "These men can give great advice, but they can't follow it."
Shapiro observed that juvenile crime is the same or worse now than it was then, "and the problem has been compounded. Crack didn't exist then and cocaine was not as widespread as it is now."
The show is one of testimonial buttressed by the reality of where people are now. Some of the best testimony came in letters, like the one Shapiro received in 1979. A writer from Rye, N.Y., said that the day he saw the show he had planned to rob a gas station with two pals. The program changed his mind.
"He said he tried to convince the other two not to go," recalled Shapiro. "But they went. One was killed and the other was hurt in a high-speed police chase and was doing time."
The basic theme of the program is sounded by one of the hard-timers. After an eloquent, expletive-filled tirade describing the horrors of prison life, he ends his spiel with a simple warning: "When you get here," he says, "I'll show you better than I can tell you."