By Ken Tucker
January 13, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Beyond Scared Straight premiered on A&E on Thursday night, a documentary series meant to frighten law-breaking young people into getting their lives together by exposing them to the harshness of prison life.The premiere was an all-female edition. First we met some frightening teenagers — and I mean ones that aren’t behind bars. There was 13 year-old Leanna, who admitted to taking drugs and shop-lifting. (She’s a preacher’s daughter, and thus practically bred to be on a reality-TV show.) There were other girls, between the ages of 10 and 17, who have either fled their families or don’t have families to flee; they steal and drink and drug. As Leanna said, “Being bad is so fun. You’re gonna die anyway, so what’s the point?”

The point is that a girl like that can end up in this evening’s prison, California’s all-woman Chowchilla. Brought to the joint to be “scared straight,” they’re met by some very loud, angry, heavily-tattooed inmates (“Half these girls look like guys,” mutters Leanna; “I know!” agrees the girl next to her.) The civilian girls were screamed at, taunted, and threatened by the inmates as a warning for what lies ahead of them. Advice was also dispensed by, for example, one Green Eyes, a 50 year-old inmate doing life for murder, who tells a girl, “Go to school, get an education, learn something — ’cause obviously you know nothing!” Beyond Scared Straight is the brainchild of producer Arnold Shapiro, whose first version of the documentary series, called simply Scared Straight in 1978, played in movie theaters and on TV, and won both an Oscar and an Emmy. Shapiro’s high-mindedness now meshes nicely with A&E’s low-mindedness, where shows like Hoarders, Heavy, and reruns of Criminal Minds thrive.

In the ’70s, Shapiro’s staged reality prison interventions were novel, striking, and disturbing. Scared Straight was considered so important, the f-word was allowed to air on network television, in theory to help frighten the home audience about the seriousness and horror of prison life. But I wonder if many young viewers will be scared straight by a series like this now, especially after it’s been parodied by shows such as Saturday Night Live:

Did you watch Beyond Scared Straight? Do you think it’s an effective tool for encouraging young people to wake up and behave?

Twitter: @kentucker

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