Hollywood Flashback: When a Dire Message in 1978's 'Scared Straight' Led to Oscar

Golden West Television/Courtesy Everett Collection
An inmate at Rahway State Prison lecturing juvenile delinquents in Scared Straight.

"What I'm most proud of is the way it saved lives," says producer-director Arnold Shapiro of the feature doc winner. "I've got files full of letters from people who say they'd be dead or in prison if they hadn't seen [the film]."

The idea behind 1978's Scared Straight was to take teenage delinquents to New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, where they'd be terrified into choosing the path of righteousness after hearing hardcore inmates scream at them about the horrors of incarceration. The convicts would get in a teen's face with neck-bulging intensity and harangue him with details of penitentiary life — where, in one convict's words, "the big eat the little."

For the boys, the threat of being forcibly sodomized was stressed. "If you were in my cell, I'd jump on you like a kangaroo," one prisoner yelled at a quivering kid. The Hollywood Reporter said if the film "doesn't scare the crime right out of juvenile delinquents, it's unlikely anything will." Whether the screaming actually had the intended effect is open to question, and follow-up studies showed mixed results. But the film's creator is certain it did.

"What I'm most proud of is the way it saved lives," says producer-director Arnold Shapiro. "You don't make documentaries to get rich. I've got files full of letters from people who say they'd be dead or in prison if they hadn't seen Scared Straight." The film went on to win an Academy Award for feature documentary, which was especially impressive since it lacked the theatrical release the Academy preferred but did not require then.

The Peter Falk-narrated film first played on Los Angeles' KTLA Channel 5, where, on Nov. 2, 1978, it topped the local ratings with a 39 percent share. Not doing as well from the production was Rahway lifer Richard Rowe — who said the program was his concept and sued for a share of the profits. The court ruled his idea was not protected by copyright. His lawyer said, "It all boils down to: Why should a convict have any rights?" And inmates not having any rights was exactly Scared Straight's message. 

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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