Teens get scared straight

Published 11:08 pm Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Scared Straight: The documentary series “Beyond Scared Straight” filmed at Western Tidewater Regional Jail earlier this year. The episode will air Thursday.

Teens from Suffolk and Western Tidewater recently got scared straight — and there’s a television show to prove it.

A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” program taped an episode at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in July, exposing the realities of a life of incarceration to the world — and to a group of impressionable young people whose parents signed them up for the program. The program airs Thursday night.

A jail officer talks to the teens in the program.

“It’s an amazing, effective, powerful program,” said Arnold Shapiro, the producer and creator of the documentary series, as well as its predecessor, “Scared Straight.”

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The episode follows a group of local teens who have gotten into trouble such as disobedience and disrespect to their parents, shoplifting, alcohol and drug use and similar problems.

The teens’ parents signed them up for the Straight Talk program at Western Tidewater Regional Jail. The program, which is held every other week for a different group of teens, is meant to put the young people on the right path, said Capt. James Lewis, one of several jail officers who volunteer their Saturdays to run the program.

“Our methods are to get their attention, to break them down, then we build them back up,” Lewis said. “We try to get to the meat of the problems. When you get them through the program, you start finding out there’s more issues than what was said in the beginning.”

Lewis said the Straight Talk program began under that name about two years ago, but they have been doing jail tours for troubled teens for the last 15 years. Parents find out about the program through word of mouth and sign their children up, Lewis said. The only requirement is that the child cannot already be involved in the juvenile justice system.

“We want them to see what’s real,” Lewis said. “It might sink in, so they won’t wind up coming back in here.”

Even though Lewis said the jail’s program is effective, he was blown away when he heard A&E wanted to tape “Beyond Scared Straight” at the jail.

“My first reaction was, ‘How did they find out about us?’” Lewis said. “I know we’re good, but wow.”

The hour-long episode shows interviews with some of the teens and their parents done before the Straight Talk program. The teens readily admit to alcohol and drug use, shoplifting, causing problems at home and getting in fights at school.

Once the teens get to the jail, they are dressed in jail jumpsuits, handcuffed on their wrists and shackled at the ankles. They then view cell-blocks in the jail, come face-to-face with inmates at their cell doors and have inmates come into a room to talk to them.

Finally, the teens write letters to their parents and read them out loud in front of their peers and parents.

A follow-up segment at the end of the program shows how the teens’ lives have changed. Some straightened up their act, while others got into deeper trouble.

“The program itself is changing lives,” Shapiro said. “All we’re doing is chronicling it. We get a lot of letters and emails telling us that just by their child watching it on TV, they’ve changed. That’s very gratifying.”

The episode airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on A&E.