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The Lifer Who Tried to Scare Troubled Kids Straight Campaigns to Win His Freedom

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In here, I always walk around with a smile,” says Rick Rowe. “I like what I do.” Considering that what Rowe does is time—double life terms at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison for rape and assault—his claim seems remarkable. But then Rick Rowe is hardly the typical inmate. A wiry, freckle-faced 38-year-old, Rowe was founder of Rahway’s Juvenile Awareness Program, the controversial prison encounter sessions featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight.

The film—shown all over the country on TV—made Rowe a minor celebrity (and created some inside-the-walls jealousy). He has sued the producers of Scared Straight for a share of their profits, while remaining a strong defender of the Awareness Program. In it delinquent teenagers are brought to the prison and shown the brutal realities of life there. The percentage of potential criminals who are actually “scared straight” is currently in noisy public dispute. “I said from the word go that it’s not going to work for every kid,” Rowe concedes, “but it might help those on the borderline—the kids who are smart enough to cope with what they see.”

Rowe has left the Awareness Program to set up what may be the first in-house employment agency in U.S. prison history. Days—and many nights—he works out of a tiny office in the Inmate Group Center lining up job interviews for prisoners soon to be released. So far his efforts seem to be succeeding. In the past 18 months 250 inmates have been interviewed by such blue chip companies as Western Electric, Ford and Westinghouse. Some 65 have been hired.

Rowe is a man of many parts. He has hired a literary agent to sell the rights to his life story, is romantically involved with a 28-year-old woman, a youth counselor he met while she was visiting the prison and is working with his lawyer to have his sentence reduced. “When I fell in love,” Rowe declares, “I said, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to get out.’ ”

It may not be so easy to arrange. A high school dropout who claims he was beaten as a child by his father, Rowe was convicted of sodomy at 18 and of rape at 28. In between, he married, fathered three children and stole from companies that employed him as a truck driver. In 1972, after an attack on a woman he had met in a bar, he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, plus 20 to 27 years (“I’m serving more time than Son of Sam,” he complains). The charges were rape, kidnapping, sodomy and atrocious assault and battery. Rowe still protests his innocence, but admits he didn’t help his own case. At one point during his trial, the judge handed him two toy cars—meant to represent Rowe’s and the victim’s—and asked him to show how they had been parked on the night of the crime. Instead, Rowe smashed them on the floor. “Too bad,” he told the court. “They just got in an accident.”

In prison, however, Rowe began to worry that his son Rick, now 15, might follow in his father’s footsteps. Once he had encouraged the boy to steal; in 1975 he founded the Lifers’ Group, which set up the Juvenile Awareness Program within the year. Later Rowe joined AYUDA (Spanish for HELP), an organization for Hispanic inmates, and persuaded them to establish the job program. “We screen every guy real good, because if they don’t work out they’ll hurt the program,” says Rowe. “Of course, we don’t want other inmates hating us, so we don’t turn anyone down. We just put their file way in the back—or here,” he adds, patting his wastebasket.

Given his gloomy prospects for quick parole, Rowe might easily give way to frustration. Instead, he has redoubled his efforts. “I’m up at 7:30, have coffee and leave for the office,” he says. “I only eat one meal a day. I could eat three meals and miss six hours’ work, but I’m trying to get myself out of prison.” Currently, he is running a drive to obtain 15,000 Christmas toys that inmates can give to their own kids, welfare children and orphans. He is campaigning for a program of conjugal visits at Rahway, and recently started an in-prison barbering school taught by visiting hairstylists. “People tell me I should have tried all this stuff legally,” he says wryly. “I would have made a fortune. With all I do around this place, they may never let me leave.”