When John appeared on "Scared Straight!" in 1978, he was a cocky 15-year-old crime machine and self-professed "tough guy" who all but apologized for not having killed anyone yet.
That was before he and 16 other serious juvenile offenders entered Rahway State Prison in New Jersey to be verbally assaulted for three hours by hardened murderers and armed robbers.
Arnold Shapiro's documentary of Rahway's "lifers" trying to scare young hoods out of their careers of crime rocked America with its crude street language and graphic details of the brutal, violent, dehumanizing life behind prison walls.
It was great TV then. It still is. The original award-winning "Scared Straight," hosted by Peter Falk, makes up the first half of "Scared Straight! 10 Years Later" (from 8-10 tonight on KTLA Channel 5). It has lost none of its impact or its pertinence.
Shapiro's new follow-up tracks down and interviews the original cast of kids and cons to find out what became of them and how Rahway's 10-year-old program affected their lives. To varying degrees, we see that most stayed out of serious trouble and made something of their lives. Only one is in jail today. "Tough guy" John, one of several heartwarming successes, today is a churchgoing father of three who credits Rahway's program for saving him.
As good as it is, Shapiro's new material fails to update or even address the controversy over the long-term effectiveness of prison programs like Rahway's. Nor does it offer factual data or any expert comment on the larger issue of youth crime. Most seriously, no proof is supplied to back up Goldberg's wildly unscientific interpolation that if the 17 "Scared Straight" kids are any indication, Rahway's program has also had a similarly lasting impact on most of the other 25,000 youths who have gone through it.
Still, "Ten Years Later" effectively hammers home a basic message--commit crimes, use drugs--and find yourself in jail. It provides a valuable, mostly happy ending to the highly charged original.