AT 10 P.M. tomorrow, WTTG (Channel 5) will rebroadcast "Scared Straight!'," one of the most awesome documentaries ever seen on television. The film, made inside New Jersey's Rahway state prison, follows 17 young people through a corrective course called the Juvenile Awareness Program. The program, created and run by "lifers" -- convicts serving life sentences -- works this way: Twice a day, five days a week, a dozen or so juvenile delinquents are taken to Rahway, given a tour of the maximum-security penitentiary and then submitted to three hours of a kind of "shock treatment" during which the lifers deliberately try to frighten them wit the prospect of their likely futures.
The young people who attend these sessions are not occasional pranksters. Those in the documentary have long records of breaking-and-entering, selling drugs, assault with a deadly weapon, auto theft and robbery; others not in the film have been charged with arson, murder and rape. They have been sent to the Rahway program by judges, social workers, police officers are even parents in a last-ditch attempt to help their children.
Interviewed before the encounter with the lifers, the teen-agers exhibit a frightening amount of bravado. Once the session with the lifers begins, the cocky attitudes slowly give way to fear. It is not a pleasant sight -- or sound. The lifers hurl obscenities; they provide the harrowing details of sexual abuses that are inflicted on young men in prison. A description of a prison killing becomes a chance for the lifers to emotionally maul the group; a personal recollection by one of the convicts of his own juvenile exploits turns into a verbal browbeating.
The documentary concludes with a follow-up: Three months after the session, 16 of the 17 youngsters filmed were "scared straight"; 10 months later, all 17 had committed no crimes -- and all attributed their change to the Rahway experience.
More than 10,000 young people have been through the sessions since the program first started in 1976 -- and a considerable number of them have been and remain "scared straight." Since juvenile offenses represent more than half of all the crimes committed each year, the Rahway experience -- however limited in its scope -- has prompted other communities to consider creating similar programs. Here in the District, for example, local officials and juvenile-justice workers recently met to discuss whether Lorton Reformatory prisoners could handle such a program. No decision has yet been made; officials are understandably cautious about jumping too quickly on this bandwagon.
To be sure, the Rahway program is not the solution to juvenile delinquency -- and not necessarily the best way to handle all hard-core juvenile offenders. It is, however, a far better method than simply sending them off to adult prisons. Sunday evening's broadcast of "Scared Straight!" leaves nothing to the imagination -- except perhaps the prospect of a few less juveniles entangled in lives of crime.