When I started Mark Dostert’s Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, I confessed my skepticism of the book’s subject matter to my editor. I’m generally leery of these ersatz ethnographies, wherein the difficulties that a people or culture encounter are glimpsed through the prism of (usually white) privilege. The less offensive iterations are of the “white savior” variety (see Kathryn Stockett’s The Help), but then there are the outright racist publications such as the 1959 Golden Book Encyclopedia, which intended to teach (again, white) children about “the Negro” in what was, at the time, presumed to be a post-racial America.
Moving forward with my reading, and my bias, I initially placed Dostert’s memoir in the former category after reading his introduction. While an undergrad at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, he volunteers as a Bible study instructor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, which is the nation’s largest such facility. It was best known as the “Audy Home,” referring to the Arthur J. Audy Home of the early 20th century, which itself was once the largest juvenile jail in the country. After completing a graduate degree in his home state of Texas, Dostert returns to Audy Home as a “Children’s Attendant” in an attempt to minister to the incarcerated (mostly African-American) children and teens.
The inmates, or residents, to use another one of the facility’s terms, are mostly impoverished children and teens under 17, who have been accused of misdemeanors and/or felonies. They are from the “other side” of Chicago, which can refer to multiple neighborhoods in the city, as well as Alex Kotlowitz’s award-winning 1991 biography, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. In it, Kotlowitz chronicled the lives of Lafayette and Pharaoh Rivers, two brothers who grew up in the Henry Horner Homes, a crime-ridden public housing project in Chicago.
Dostert acknowledges Kotlowitz’s seminal work in his memoir, which is kind of a companion piece; it’s full of vignettes from the lives of children and teenagers, with similar backgrounds, who weren’t able to steer clear of a life of crime. Although he begins his year-long stint with the requisite (for the genre) intention to make a difference as an attendant, he soon learns that “home,” “attendant,” and even “children” are just euphemisms—he’s less a counselor than a prison guard. He is at turns optimistic and defeated in his work, relying upon both his naïveté and physical stature to make it through the eight hour shifts that require him to conduct body searches, monitor despondent inmates, and dispense punishment.
And that’s what ultimately helps this book break the “white savior” mold: Dostert admits to failing both the residents and himself. His race and socioeconomic status render it impossible for him to relate to the residents’ background. The Audy Home administration fails to give him the proper training, if there is such a thing, to build any kind of relationship. Early on, he acknowledges the irony of referring to a structure that holds involuntary residents as any kind of “home,” and that’s when he—and the reader—knows he will never have the vocabulary to communicate with the Audy residents, let alone effect any real change in their behavior.
Dostert spent a year working at Audy Home, and his book ends on that anniversary. He rides a train into the Chicago of “conventions, parades, and postcards,” which is not the Chicago of Audy Home. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Mark Dostert’s desire to counsel incarcerated youth took him there and back.