Up in Here
Jailing Kids on
Chicago's Other Side

Mark Dostert
(University of Iowa)
When Mark Dostert decided to take a walk on the wild side, he did so in Chicago's "Audy Home," its largest (and most crowded) juvenile detention center. He made a vow to himself and his friends to work there for a year. He almost didn't make it, because more that once he prepared a letter of resignation. (He did send it in once, only to call it back.)

Why? Because the system beat him. Not the kids, but the system. It beat him by touching his manhood. When some black kid called him a "white bitch"(!) his first reaction was to pretend it didn't happen. His second was to hope some other guard on duty would punish the offender, send him to his room. But the other jailers were not that keen keep to help the only white dude on duty. They weren't what he needed to save face. That was his job.

What Dostert didn't know when he started out has to do with that oldest of old adages: in prison everyone is doing time. Dosert only seems to acknowledge this when we get mid-way through Up in Here. He begins to refer to the other staff by their hours ("2-10" or "8-4" or "6-2") rather than by their names.

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Another major problem here is that the author likes picking on himself, so by the end of the book, we get to feel we're doin' time, too.

    How much of a man am I if kids, be they ten or thirteen or sixteen, can make me want to quit because my eight hours were torturous, and I dread eye contact with supervisors and coworkers the next day?

"As long as children can torment me, I'm a child, too."

We ultimately keep on with the book because we don't want Dostert to make too much of a fool of himself, and, as well, because the picture from the inside is so bleak we are hoping he will come up with some grand scheme that will give his charges more than television, ping-pong, and a deck of cards to keep them busy and out of trouble.

No good. By the end, the author is --- in his head --- begging the people who schedule the shifts not to send him to floor 4K where the punks play him like an old fiddle.

And why not? Those stuck away in the pokey have little else to do besides watch their watchers . . . doing their best to yank their chains. 4K is known as "The Ghetto," with the oldest boys in the building. "Farming the nastier kids, 'the real assholes,' to one floor does make sense," he concedes. They are big, nearing the age of eighteen where they will be sent to the adult facilities where most of them face long sentences.

    Such juveniles have nothing to fear by swinging a chair at our heads with forty years at a prison downstate imminent.

It's the old paradox: how do you discipline someone who is already on discipline?

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One of the less enthralling moments in this book is watching the author start to turn into a petty, picayune authority figure. "The longer I'm employed at the Audy Home, the higher a priority smooth simple shifts are becoming," he confesses.

    It's about saving me now, not the kids. I feel like a failure and a hypocrite, like I haven't truly known myself until I became a children's attendant.

The characters here who end up getting our empathy are the ones like Edison, who --- even in such a benighted place --- try, and try far more than the writer to have the patience to tell the kids what's what. This is Edison, striding back and forth in front of them, yelling "why do you guys keep comin' back to this bitch? Do you like it better here than at home?" Someone, he claims, has learned how to pit the gangs against each other, keeping blacks "fighting over drug deals."

    That way the government could build more prisons and make money off lockin' us all up. Look, even if you weren't out gang-bangin' and selling drugs, they'd still find a way to come and lock yo' black asses up

"So why do you guys keep comin' back? Why do you keep doing what the beast wants you to do?"

From a sixteen-year-old comes this gem of a response, capitalism in action: "I ain't fixin' to work at no McDondal's for no four dollars an hour when I can sell five bags in about an hour and make a hundred."

--- A. W. Allworthy
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