"IT SCARED the hell out of me the first time I saw it," said Salanda Whitfield, "and I've been working prisons for 20 years." Whitfield is the administration of the main facility at the Lorton correctional complex, and he was talking about "Scared Straight," the documentary that has been aired by WTTG-TV here twice in the past two weeks. "It's probably one of the most realistic portrayals of what prison life is all about," said Whitfield.
The film telescopes into one hour a program run at Rahway state prison in New Jersey in which hardened inmates tell a group of 17 juvenile delinquents what they face in prison unless they straighten out. No details are spared. Homosexual rapes and liaisons are detailed by the inmates in the most brutal, degrading terms. The youngsters are verbally abused by grown men who repeatedly refer to them in the Oedipal compound nound and who threaten to disfigure them. Nothing is left to the imagination. You could see the youngsters listening to the inmates rant and rave about prison life and watch the face of the tough little kid who steals purses from old ladies turn into the face of fear.
Nothing succeeds like fear. Most of the kids who were sent into the Rahway program by judges went straight. The program has an astounding success rate. Only one of the 17 kids shown in the film got into trouble in the next year' "Scared Straight" got huge ratings for WTTG, was reviewed in all the papers, and has provoked a community plagued by juvenile crime into focusing, at least for a moment, on a novel way to combat it.
There is talk around Washington of having a formal program here modeled on the Rahway project, that would expose juvenile delinquents to graduates at Lorton. "Since the advent of 'Scared Straight,' we've had inquiries from concerned citizens groups, from parents, from almost everybody you can think of as well as from our residents," said Whitfield. "Most of our inmate groups are ready and willing to start some kind of thing. I have about 20 proposals from inmate groups.
"We're moving cautiously along and if we do start it up, it would probably not be a direct duplicate of that program' It would take under consideration the differences you would see in this community from New Jersey. One of the differences might be that kids in Washington get involved in crime at an earlier age. I don't know."
After the first showing, Whitfield said, about 300 survey sheets were passed out to residents, who were asked to comment on the program' One inmate comment: "I saw myself in the film and I wish I'd been scared straight after my first arrest." Another: "I was shook up about the film."
"Most of the comments were just saying that everything about the film was so real and true to life that it was frightening," said Whitfield. "We asked them if the film was idealistic, realistic or overdramatized, and I would say 95 percent said it was not overdramatized and 95 percent said it was a realistic appraisal of what prison life was all about."
"The rehabilitation rate - 80 or 90 percent - is just beyond the realm of imagination to me," said Nan Huhn, an assistant corporation counsel with years of experience handling juvenile delinquents. "Because of that alone, it's worth looking into, and talk is beginning to develop.... It's a question now of people getting together."
Huhn and others involved in juvenile corrections say there are a lot of questions to be answered about the Rahway program and whether it would work here. What kind of youngsters can be rehabilitated by it? What are their family and social backgrounds? How entrenched in criminal life styles are they? How serious are their crimes?
"I don't know if that kind of program would work for the kind of kid who has been picked up for armed robbery and whose mother and father and older brother have been in jail," said Huhn. "They know from firsthand knowledge from their family what jail is like and that could offset the impact of that program' We'd have to find out more from the people up there about what kinds of kids it's owrked with before we start doing it down here.
"If you took a kid who basically comes from a lower middle class or middle class family, that kind of thing is going to terrorize him. But if you take a kid who has grown up where people are shooting up around the corner and who are shooting each other with guns, is that kind of kid going to be terrified by a prison?"
Gene Lyons, a public relations person for Channel 5, said the station has received more than 3,000 phone calls and 800 letters since "Scared Straight" was first televised here' About 10 percent of the people criticized the obscene language, but the rest of the comments were favorable, he said.
William Barr, head of Washington's social rehabilitation administration and the man in charge of the city's juvenile corrections facilities, is one of the people who is not sold on the program. "You're talking about branding all inmates," he said. "You couldn't help, if you watched that Rahway thing, but feel that prisoners are animals."
Barr has a point here. You get the idea from "Scared Straight" that all prisons are jungles and that all prisoners are predatory animals. It shows the worst of prison conditions as if they were the norm. Most communities are already scared of having halfway houses and other programs for prisoners in their midst, and "Scared Straight" is hardly reassuring. But that is a problem with the film, not with the Rahway project.
Maybe the Rahway approach wouldn't work for some of the tough kids around here, kids who have already done time in city reformatories such as Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll and who could probably handle themselves just fine in Lorton. It might not straighten out poor kids in housing projects who have no ticket out and who look around them and see that their future is now.
But the program does seem to work for certain kids and it might well work for some poor kids and for the juvenile delinquents who steal people's cars, set fire to schools, peddle dope and destroy people's lawns and mailboxes. It might well work, in other words, for the privileged children we've been reasoning with over the past decade. *tPeople are impressed by the Rahway project' It seems to work and that's exciting. The tendency is to think of it therefore as something novel. Atually, it is not. The approach is as old as our grandparents. They didn't reason with their kids; they told them if they did something wrong they would be in terrible trouble and the kids knew that it was a promise, not a threat. Kids behaved themselves because they were too scared not to. *tThat's the kind of child psychology they used in the old days, and if the Rahway project tells us anything, it's that the old-fashioned child psychology is well worth trying on kinds again.