The stars of Scared Straight! ‘99 file into the film’s premiere escorted by uniformed guards, who shepherd their charges to the back rows of the theater and remain close by. “No interviews,” a guard growls when a reporter tries to speak to one of the men. The entrance is unusual, to say the least; then again, these two dozen “stars” are also convicted murderers, rapists, and kidnappers, serving life bits in the East Jersey State Prison. And the screening is taking place in the maximum-security facility’s less-than-plush auditorium.
Set to air on MTV August 1, Scared Straight! ‘99 – the sequel to the Oscar-winning 1978 documentary – chronicles the efforts of these convicts to shock juvenile offenders out of their criminal ways. Right now, though, the cons, sitting docilely in their khaki prison duds, look a lot less scary than the horde of MTV executives, social workers, local politicians, and media types who outnumber the nominal audience. “You guys see each other close up every day!” producer Arnold Shapiro jokes when a prisoner complains about the seating.
As the guests scarf roasted-vegetable wraps and pasta salad from a cold buffet – off-limits to the lifers, who have already eaten their chipped beef on toast in the prison mess hall – a pair of television news producers point out the convicts they want their crews to shoot. “They’re looking at them like animals in a cage,” whispers a social worker.
During the requisite speeches and photo ops, a few lifers applaud politely when New Jersey corrections commissioner Jack Terhune takes the podium, but all of them cheer wildly at the mention of Lieutenant Alan August, who founded the prison’s Juvenile Awareness Program in the seventies. Once the grip-and-grins are done, the film itself – which seems less and less like the night’s main event – finally begins. On-screen, a musclebound convict confronts a prepubescent shoplifter. “Little boy, what the fuck you doin’ in a prison?” he yells. “And if you tell me a motherfuckin’ lie, I’m gonna mush your motherfuckin’ face!” The convicts crack up; the suits chuckle nervously.
As glaring as the contrast is between the jailbirds and tonight’s guests, the prisoners – and their keepers – may be savvier than appearances indicate. East Jersey State, with its camera-ready Dickensian architecture and proximity to Manhattan, “has gotten its share of media attention,” says SS ‘99 director Bob Niemack. “Every guard here has been an extra in some Stallone movie.”