Keeping a Watch on TV

By Bruce Fretts
July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

People don’t really know what goes on behind bars,” says Amy Kalafa, executive producer of Crime Stories: Inside the Criminal Mind II (Court TV, July 28, 10-11 p.m.), one of two captivating docu-peeks at prisons premiering this week. ”A regular person can’t just walk up and knock on the door and say, ‘Can I come hang out?’ We can and we do, and we’re constantly amazed by what we see.”

Among the more amazing characters Kalafa and partner Maxine Paul encountered during their visit to New York’s maximum-security Sullivan Correctional Facility: David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam. Rather than the seething psychopath portrayed by The Practice‘s Michael Badalucco in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, Berkowitz comes across as a born-again nebbish. He recounts in an interview how he was adopted by ”a lovely Jewish couple” but grew to be a ”devilish” child who was eventually driven to kill six people and concludes — in the understatement of the millennium — ”I didn’t do too good in life.”

Berkowitz now works as an assistant in the prison’s therapy program for mentally ill inmates. Yet there’s something unsettlingly hostile about his conversion to Christianity. ”Helping people find God is my way of getting back at the devil,” he explains. Kalafa expresses skepticism about Berkowitz’s mental stability: ”He feels that he was possessed by Satan and now he’s possessed by Christ. I see that as two sides of the same psychological disorder.”

Sullivan also houses Arthur Shawcross, who strangled at least 11 prostitutes and cannibalized some of his victims. ”He emanates a creepy feeling, because he can smile and talk about killing women,” says Kalafa. Boasting of his hobbies in a therapy session, he eerily declares, ”I’m a good cook,” and shows off his sketch of Marilyn Monroe (he’s also drawn Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, and Princess Di). And as the camera focuses on Shawcross’ long, yellow nails, he brags, ”I can kill you with three fingers.”

But Inside the Criminal Mind II isn’t all chilling voyeurism. By concentrating on the facility’s psychiatric program, the filmmakers hope to show that rehabilitation is possible. ”Even the most villainous characters I’ve seen have something redeeming,” says Kalafa.

This week’s other jailhouse doc, Scared Straight! ’99 (MTV, Aug. 1, 10-11 p.m.), has an equally high-minded goal: keeping kids out of prison in the first place. This update of the Emmy- and Oscar-winning 1979 film follows a new bunch of juvenile delinquents to East Jersey State Prison, where inmates explain in graphic fashion what life in the joint is really like. Because the show is airing on MTV, writer-director Bob Niemack utilizes a flashier visual style than the original and a soundtrack of smartly chosen hits (Jane’s Addiction’s ”Been Caught Stealin’,” Snoop Dogg’s ”Murder Was the Case”).

Scared‘s tactics include no-holds-barred descriptions of how fresh cons are turned into the stronger prisoners’ ”bitches” (one would-be badass is forced to rename himself ”Bridget”). Despite establishing a new record for the use of a certain 12-letter expletive in one hour, exec producer Arnold Shapiro says he doesn’t expect the uncensored special to cause any controversy: ”People realize the real obscenity is not profanity-laden language, it’s juvenile crime.”