Mark Dostert’s experience as a children’s attendant in Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is the subject of his memoir, Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side from University of Iowa Press. Unfortunately, the author’s account of his experience is too narrow and self-centered to shed any light on the people the title suggests are the subjects: the children of Audy Home, ages ten through sixteen, who are incarcerated and awaiting trial.
Instead, Up in Here focuses on Dostert’s growing cynicism about his job, which he repeatedly reminds the reader he is only keeping for a year so as to not mar his resume. Dostert’s difficulties in the workplace may have made an interesting enough account, but he completely lacks the ability to properly attribute his workplace woes to an ineffective and dangerous juvenile prison system. A deeper exploration and critique of this system, perhaps one of the few things that could’ve added some small amount of depth to his personal story, is absent.
The only fascinating thing about Dostert’s memoir is that his absurd naivety remains consistent throughout. Dostert is a recent graduate of Moody Bible Institute and has little experience working with children, but one wonders how he can remain so clueless even six months later. That is, until Dostert reminds us (at least once every few pages) that he is just a white man from the suburbs of Texas, and so he can’t understand what many of his charges have been through.
One might at least expect Dostert to be able to empathize with the children in his care, but in this too he fails. His goal (read: fantasy) upon accepting his role as children’s attendant was to become a friendly mentor to the children, but when they don’t immediately fall all over themselves to make him feel special and important, he becomes frustrated and gives up.
Lacking in empathy may be an understatement for the way Dostert feels about the children in his care. Indeed, he hardly seems to see them as human at times. He writes:
“I will quit and move back to my parents’ leafy street in Texas where no kids will snicker ‘Newjack’ and file plastic fork handles into blades against cell walls and egg each other on to fist away their discord, encroaching mobs rooting for blood. This seems xenophobic and bigoted, but better a happy racist than an inept humanitarian.”
This statement sums up the most major problem with Dostert’s account: it is, indeed, racist. Though Dostert expresses great offense and concern when any child or fellow attendant hints something he’s doing is racist, he should have been more concerned with deconstructing his own racist ideas, particularly his anti-blackness. Throughout the memoir Dostert describes black children and fellow attendants in barely coded language, at one point calling children who rebel by banging on Plexiglas windows “like barbarians.” He describes a child’s comb as resembling “the kind used to rake grass burrs from a horse’s mane”—one of several instances where Dostert compares black children to animals.
It is impossible to write a meaningful account Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center if the author is unwilling to look beyond his own experiences as someone working within the system, and even more impossible if that author views many of the children incarcerated by that system as little more than “barbarians” or “thugs.” Up in Here never transcends Dostert’s initial naivety, prejudices, ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, or beliefs about what is right and what is wrong—all things one might reasonably expect the author to reflect on and deconstruct—and so, it proves to be a rather useless account.
Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side
University of Iowa Press