Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side

Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side

by Mark Dostert


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Raised in a comfortable Dallas suburb, Mark Dostert crossed cultural and socioeconomic boundaries as a college student by volunteering as a counselor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Chicago’s infamous 500-cell juvenile jail, known locally as the Audy Home. Inmates there had been indicted on first-degree murder, rape, and carjacking charges, yet some enthusiastically met with him for weekly Bible-based lessons and discussions. Dostert formed friendly relationships with his students and envisioned becoming an even closer mentor to the legally troubled boys when he became an employee there after graduating from college.

The juveniles’ attitudes toward Dostert change, however, once he begins working as a “Children’s Attendant” at the Audy Home, clocking in for eight hours every day to enforce rules and maintain order on the cellblocks. His colorblind, altruistic volunteer world fractures into a full-time, emotionally charged reality of white and black and brown. When the boys change, he must change too. Despite wanting to help them feel human in such a dehumanizing environment, Dostert realizes he needs to make sure his kindness is not perceived as weakness. Dostert learns to march the juveniles through the facility to school, recreation activities, and chapel. He must strip-search them, interrupt their brawls, root through their cells for drugs and handcrafted weapons, and monitor group showers to thwart sexual extortion and the inscription of gang symbols in soap on walls and mirrors. Week after week and month after month, the job exposes hidden views not only of the juveniles and the “system” incarcerating them, but of Children’s Attendant Dostert himself.

From one man’s struggle to reconcile his humanitarian intentions with his actual job responsibilities in what, to him, is a strange new world, emerges a sincere effort to confront the realities of America’s persisting racial tensions and institutionalized poverty. Dostert’s story is an honest and unflinching journey from thinking he has many of the answers for how to change this world to discovering how little he really knows about the world he is trying to change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609382704
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Edition description: 1
Pages: 254
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Dostert holds degrees from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and University of North Texas. His writing has appeared in Ascent, Cimarron Review, Houston Chronicle, Southern Indiana Review, and The Summerset Review, and been cited as notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, The Best American Essays 2011, and The Best American Essays 2013. Presently, he teaches English Language Arts in the Houston Independent School District.

Read an Excerpt

Up in Here

Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side

By Mark Dostert

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2014 Mark Dostert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-288-9


Five years before meeting Ruben and his scars, I climb into a minivan with several other students at a Moody Bible Institute parking lot. I'm a senior. We've spent a cloistered day at our cramped campus, mere blocks from the Magnificent Mile and Lake Michigan, studying the Scriptures and how best to explain them to others. The end of this minivan ride will provide that opportunity: our weekly Practical Christian Ministry at the Audy Home. Soon we cross the cement-banked Chicago River well beyond where city officials dye the canal green on St. Patrick's Day. Driving southwest, buildings shrink and grow shabbier. After a stretch of Halsted Street absent any of its famed jazz clubs, comes the West Side Center for Disease Control. A few hundred yards ahead to our left stands a five-story steel and glass quadrangle—the Audy Home.

At more than half a million square feet, the facility dominates the block. Tinted windows and every steel surface painted the hue of tar render most of the structure an invisible mass blotting out the dusky cityscape west of us. Lights illumine only the revolving entryway and the rectangular second floor office windows. We rotate through spinning doors. No one staffs the walk-through metal detector inside. Two after-hours deputies camped behind a tall counter barely glance up at my classmates and me, much less search us. They must doubt our posing any contraband risk. We ascend a cement staircase with a metal railing and join a handholding circle with other volunteers and Chaplain Rick, a blind man wearing oversized pitch-dark glasses. Wavy black hair falls down his forehead to his eyebrows. His ample hair and impenetrable shades turn his face into a veil. I wonder what it means that he can't see us. Other volunteers, all black but one, are male and female Chicagoans of varying ages and occupations. There are a dozen of us in total.

Wayne, a self-described floor buffer in his mid-thirties, eventually tells me, "Hey, I have three X's on my back. I'm lucky to have any job." His back and shoulders, wide as a stove, could accommodate the entire alphabet. I'm curious but don't prod about his felony or his number of penitentiary years or "what was it like" to be in prison. I do envy Wayne. At twenty-one years and four months of age, I've never sniffed or shot drugs, smelled marijuana, sucked on a cigarette, swallowed a full can of beer, or said "Damn" loudly enough for anyone to hear. I have no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket. The youth detained on three floors above us, I worry, will heed Wayne's bass-voiced admonition to live lawful lives more readily than mine. Strapping Wayne is black and from the South Side of Chicago. I grew up on the south side of the Red River, in Bedford, Texas.

The group prays out loud that God will help these young people understand how Jesus can save them, but I pray secretly that even though I look nothing like Wayne, the boys won't scoff at me. My skin is light, maybe pale. My hair is sandy. Nine out of ten Audy Home kids have dark hair and skin darker than mine. Half were born to teenage mothers. Three quarters pledge gang allegiance.

This place is actually the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Inmates, ages ten to sixteen, await trial on charges like first-degree murder, attempted murder, rape, carjacking, assault, armed robbery, and narcotics offenses. To most staff and inmates, it remains "the Audy Home" after the Arthur J. Audy Children's Home—a juvenile lockup built in the 1920s that also sheltered abused and neglected youngsters. County bulldozers razed it fifty years later when this five-hundred-cell stockade opened. The new complex houses only boys and girls arraigned in legal cases and functions solely as a jail, but everyone calls it a home.

When I was the inmates' age, church pews made for my second home. I credit God and the Bible I read on those pews for the fact that I haven't done whatever bad things Wayne did or whatever bad things the juvenile delinquents we soon will meet did.

Stacks of paperback Bibles in our hands, Chaplain Rick directs us onto an elevator up to the residential floors. On the fifth I exit alone. I wish I could tag along with Wayne, but Chaplain Rick sends us solo. Overhead fluorescent panels glare. Walls on either side of me are beige bricks halfway up, then convert to what resembles bulletproof glass. Every twenty feet is a vertical steel stud painted Mississippi mud brown. The floor tiles are thin and lighter, the shade of toffee.

I poke my head into an open cellblock door. Boys in their mid-teens slap aces and spades at five or six round plastic tables in the shoe box–shaped room's middle. The block's composition matches the adjoining hallway—more glass, more shellac-coated steel, more tan linoleum floor, and more russet bricks. The inmate tally is at least twenty because more boys idle in chair rows at the block's left end behind a glass partition where a television transfixes them. I square up with the black man wearing no uniform hunkered near the door at a huge metal desk equipped with a flat panel of knobs and switches. The knobs and switches conjure up little purpose in my mind, like the man, who only sits and monitors.

The man doesn't nod, so I do, anxious that he might warn the boys with a frown that I preach a white man's gospel irrelevant to the street and the slammer.

From him I glance toward the inmates at the tables and say, "Anyone for Bible study?"

Four juveniles stand. Surprised and relieved, I smile and stroll with them down the corridor to another round table, this one with chrome-legged chairs in an unstaffed room just big enough for the furniture and us. Cellblock chairs are exclusively plastic to lessen their lethalness if swung or chucked. In our special room though, no inmate elevates a forearm or fist at me, much less a metallic chair. I don't need Wayne. Being in jail must turn bad kids good.

Each Monday night, fall and spring semester, we perch on ourdeadly chairs for half an hour and ponder the Golden Rule and God so loving the world and a Samaritan bestowing mercy upon his enemy. The boys tilt their chins in consent. They speak in turn. They bow their heads to pray and be forgiven. They never curse or complain or badger me to do something fun or whisper about my smuggling them a bag of hot chips or a Milky Way. They ask questions, and to my relief, never the question my impending theological degree hasn't answered—Why didn't God give them my life with a dad who played baseball catch with me about as often as I asked him to and a mom who said "I love you" so many times that I lost count? As with Wayne, I don't ask the inmates why officers arrested them. From the newspaper or a radio flash, I may know of their alleged crime. Kids murder kids in this city. A Great Awakening tent revival preacher founded my college. An eye, I believe, like those clergy of old likely believed, merits another eye. In our interpretation, the Bible requires that if you kill someone, then the rest of us must kill you. So in my head I believe in the death penalty, but, outside my head, I don't want Illinois to kill any of my Bible study subjects.

* * *

After graduation I return to Texas, resolved to pursue an advanced degree in history—now convinced by my Bible college studies and volunteering at the Audy Home that time and place root our feelings and thoughts about God and the Bible. I have much more to learn, but soon I am pondering Chicago again while watching Michael Jordan's Bulls against Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. When Jordan and company triumph, I think of the neighborhood around his team's aging arena, hardly a mile north of the Audy Home. Last summer, fans there streamed out of neighboring flats and housing project high rises to torch cars and bust storefront windows after the home team won the same championship trophy. As the Bulls clinch this victory in Phoenix, outside their arena, riotous fans re-inflict Chicago with celebratory damage. But I'm wondering if any of my former friends, many now released from the nearby jail, can claim anything worth celebrating in their new free lives.

* * *

My first grad class is a seminar on Europe during the Great Wars. Required Internet access somehow lands me at the Chicago Tribune electronic archives where my focus falls back on the city's criminally accused children instead of historiographical arguments about a seemingly bygone Europe of three-quarters a century ago. Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, age 11 with an uneven Afro and a sweet tooth, dies when older gang comrades, two teenage brothers, shoot him in a pedestrian tunnel to thwart his informing police how they puppet-stringed him into gunning down another child, a girl. Two preteens drop a five-year-old, Eric Morse, from a fourteenth-floor project window, allegedly for refusing to help them steal candy. Four of these kids, one now dead, have spent nights at the Audy Home, possibly my volunteer nights.

From the Tribune website, I also learn about Teachers for Chicago, which apprentices college graduates to become certified Illinois schoolteachers. As a teacher, I could befriend students, perhaps kids growing up to be kids like Robert and his assassins and the two unphotographed boys who sent little Eric over that window ledge. I could care for them like I had my Bible study subjects—quizzing them about their lives each afternoon when school lets out, tipping them off to the Bulls next free telecast. I won't apply to PhD tracks or chase jobs at private high schools like my graduate school contemporaries. Teachers for Chicago will accept me, I'm convinced, but I also contact Missionaries of Charity, a combined food pantry and after-school program. I'd be honored to work even indirectly for Mother Teresa, who founded the center during her visit to the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex once as populated as some American suburbs, across the street from the Bulls' since-demolished Chicago Stadium. I know of this nonprofit from Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Kotlowitz's bestselling book, There Are No Children Here, which chronicled two brothers living in these very projects during the late 1980s. The violence they witnessed prompted their mother to inform the author that despite their ages, nine and twelve, the brothers had "seen too much to be children."

Sister Marilyn from Missionaries of Charity soon notifies me, "We do not employ anyone, but volunteers are welcome." Chicago Public Schools then writes that my transcripts show too few hours in math, science, and civics. I'm nearing a Master of Arts in history, but Chicago's school district won't train me to teach history to its middle school students.

I scour the Trib job listings again and discover that the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center needs children's attendants. I haven't seen any inmates in three years but still remember names—Jerome, Terry, Antwan, Marvell, Sergio, Curtis, Melvin, Lemmuel, Luis, Thaddeus—when my computer screen in Texas tells me that the Audy Home is hiring. Kotlowitz has deemed its ground floor courtrooms, where the older brother in his book stood trial for a vehicle break-in, "not a friendly place." How could it be friendly when judges hear seventy-five cases a day and workloads bury the juveniles' public defenders and probation officers? I write for an application. Like I had the visitation rooms, I can at least make those cellblocks upstairs friendly places. I can do more than lounge behind a bunker desk and monitor.

Cook County Human Resources sends me a flyer. A children's attendant:

Provides direct supervisory care for juveniles in custody at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Helps maintain order, cleanliness and decorum in the living units and other areas. Prepares juveniles for various group and individual activities such as religious services, classes, recreational programs and court hearings. Responsible for the well-being and safety of juveniles during tour of duty.

Attending children doesn't sound insufferable: remind the inmates to clean their cells, model how to address their judge in complete sentences, and coax down occasional flaring tempers. My Bible study subjects never raved about any brawls or security wrestling kids to the floor. The handbill also lists the minimum qualifications:

1. 21 years of age

2. High School diploma or General Education Development test certificate

3. Negative drug screening report

4. No past criminal record of conviction for a felony or misdemeanor

5. One year of experience within a field of social or community service working with adolescents

6. Negative report from the Illinois DCFS Child Abuse Registry

All the red tape scrutiny pleases me. Cook County government's precaution to protect its detained children must confirm their harmlessness while jailed. Most must be polite and crave friendship like those who joined me in those little rooms to crack open the Bibles I brought. Applications cannot be mailed, so I fly to Chicago to submit one.

A letter then instructs me to return for a written exam. I pass the test and in several months assemble with twenty-seven remaining applicants in an arc of chairs stretching across a conference room on the facility's second floor. We're not far from Chaplain Rick's office. One other candidate is white. Two or three may be Hispanic. Everyone else is black like Assistant Superintendent Fred Davis, a lumbering man in his late fifties, who paces in front and addresses us. "Your job won't be to come in, sit down, and watch the kids. Your job is to help the children become better people than they were the day they walked in here." Davis is the only Audy Home employee I've spotted in a suit. The lecturing tone, instead of what I feel should be an opportunity pitch, appears to be Davis's effort to ward off those here to score what they perceive as a plum position—just sit and watch and get paid. What he says still heartens me. Helping children is what I'm all about.

Davis and the panel of supervisors and caseworkers finish their presentation and instruct us where to report for individual interviews. I find my room. Davis himself and a short supervisor with a tangle of gold chains covering the buttons down his shirtfront walk in. Davis and the squat man, black too, take chairs across a desk from me.

"Mr. Dostert, do you have any questions for us?"

"Yes. How many kids will I be responsible for? And how many coworkers will I have?"

The men advise that if hired, I will be teamed with one attendant to manage up to twenty-four juveniles, but there is a handle—the Faraday Alarm. Davis gestures a sinking motion with his arm bent at the elbow, "You pull it if things get really crazy."

My security-officer-on-the-cellblock-with-me theory, which I've harbored since first reading the job description, evaporates. A lever. No whistle or mace or pepper spray or hand cuffs. Not even a badge and uniform. One attendant later sums it up: "All you have is your mouth." To me, children's attendant never sounded like jail guard in the written summary. I construed the position as Cook County's humanitarian innovation to install counselor-types on the cellblocks who would humanize and attend to the inmates' social and emotional needs while real guards lingered nearby just in case. I'd simply missed those guards while a volunteer.

Next come their questions. The most vexing: What would you do if you saw a kid take an apple from another kid?

"Were they arguing over it? Did they both think it was theirs?"

Davis scripts words into the hypothetical kid thug's mouth: "You're a chump and I'm taking your apple."

Thirty years separate me from Davis, who was pulling shifts here during my birth year. He wields the secret to reproaching such fruit-mugger murder suspects and expects likewise from suburban Texan me. Davis's scenario rings surreal, considering that I'd never even ordered the inmates to be quiet while reading the Parable of the Seeds or assigned specific chairs because they bickered over who sat where during my explaining Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.

"I think I would consult the rule book and enforce the consequences for theft."

"Let's say you own your own facility. You make the rules. How would you handle it?"


Excerpted from Up in Here by Mark Dostert. Copyright © 2014 Mark Dostert. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Smith74 More than 1 year ago
As I read Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, I felt as if it was peering into me—my feelings on gang violence, juvenile delinquency, race relations—as much as I was peering into it. Mark Dostert took me inside Chicago’s infamous Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and let me experience it through his eyes without harsh judgment or over-sentimentalization. He’s a fantastic writer with an authoritative voice and a vivid style that paints a picture of an institution that serves one purpose: to lock up kids ages 10-16. Not rehabilitate or reform them, but lock them up, serving as a kind of hellish way station. The book left me haunted, dwelling on the seemingly insurmountable socio-economic and racial divides in the US. This is an important work that gives voice to a frustration I certainly feel, but have never been able to articulate. It’s a sobering reality we simply can’t continue to ignore.