Scared Straight!

The threat of anal rape isn't generally thought of as a crime-prevention aid, but it's a central weapon of Scared Straight, a famous program that seeks to scare juvenile delinquents away from becoming career criminals by exposing them to the misery and violence of prison life. At the beginning of 1978's Oscar- and Emmy-winning Scared Straight!, a motley assortment of pimply, squeaky-voiced juvenile delinquents brag with cocksure naïveté about what badass criminals they are. It doesn't take an advanced irony detector to figure out that their words will soon come back to haunt them. Sure enough, after only a few minutes in prison, the aspiring criminals' swagger melts into fear and humiliation. Run by a group of hardened criminals/do-gooders called The Lifers, Scared Straight ushers adolescents into prison, where, in the distinctively raspy words of narrator Peter Falk, prisoners "verbally molest the young boys with homosexual taunts" before ushering them into a room where they're insulted, humiliated, and lectured by prisoners. There's an element of performance in the prisoners' brutally powerful spiels, a sort of burlesque of criminality designed to give the worst possible impression of life behind bars. The Lifers seem sincere in their desire to help prevent future crime, but they also seem to take an understandable pleasure in scaring the living shit out of snot-nosed punks. The recent Scared Straight! DVD bookends the original film with segments from a 1999 sequel hosted by Danny Glover–whose incongruously paternal voice is as calm and soothing as a warm bath–which catches up with both the prisoners and the kids who starred in the original special. As the former juvenile delinquents look back at their teenage selves, it's hard to tell which is more humiliating for them: reliving their profane scolding at the hands of inmates, or coming face to face with their adolescent hairstyles and oily skin. Nearly all of the kids in the program have avoided prison, and some of the inmates have been successfully rehabilitated. The Scared Straight! sequel doesn't have time for much more than a snapshot of the original subjects' present-day lives, but it's both fascinating and reassuring to see how the program helped kids and inmates alike, proving that there are ways to deter crime that don't involve building more prisons and incarcerating an ever-larger percentage of the population.

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