By February 18, 2015, published in School Library Journal on
As librarians who work with incarcerated and underserved teens and see the misinformation in the world about the kids we serve, the In the Margins committee realized a book list and award for adults who work in the margins and understand issues of social justice and inequity was needed. To this end, the In the Margins Social Justice/Advocacy Book Award was created this year. We are enlivened to announce the formation of this award and the inaugural winner.
The In the Margins committee recognizes Bryan Stevenson for his tremendous book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau).
The decision wasn’t easy. Our debate raged primarily between Stevenson’s title and Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (New Press). Just Mercy carried the day (most likely) because of its accessibility and passion. The title is winning tons of awards, and we are happy to be in the good company of his work.
In addition to the winning title, the committee has also provided the other nominations, with annotations. We hope that you will read one or all of these books to increase, deepen, affirm, and clarify your understanding of the issues facing poor people of color in America.
In the Margins Advocacy Nominations
BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. New Press. June 2013. 384p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.
Nell Bernstein doesn’t talk the usual talk about the youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Instead, she focuses on societal disregard and epistemic failure to educate and rehabilitate youth in custody. In a country that leads the world in juvenile arrest, this epic failure draws incarcerated youth deeper into the world of crime. Recent studies on offenders have revealed that those who are locked up as youth are twice as likely to be locked up as adults compared to those given alternative choices. Burning Down the House does for children what Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012) has done for adults: brings this issue to national attention. Bernstein outlines the history of juvenile “reform” schools, the rise and fall of the rehabilitative model, and the reality of what happens behind bars to already traumatized teens: further physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She takes a look at solitary confinement practices, “therapeutic prisons,” and juvenile reentry. Using solid teen developmental theory and research, United Nations findings, and trauma informed care, there is no book that so articulately sets forth the argument against the imprisonment of children. A passionate advocate for children, Bernstein highlights teens’ voices and experiences throughout the book, which adds and insight to the statistics.
GOFFMAN, Alice. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. University of Chicago Press. May 2014. 288p. Tr $25.00. ISBN 9780226136714. pap $16.00. ISBN 9781250065667.
For six years, Goffman emerged herself into the subculture and lives of families residing in a poor black inner city Philadelphia neighborhood. Goffman’s commitment to the integrity of the people involved shows throughout the work as she reveals the desperation, fear, and resourcefulness of a community trying to survive within a culture of surveillance. Children’s games are centered on running and hiding from the police; janitors and other hospital employees end up treating serious wounds, including gunshot wounds, on the street. Small business arise to assist people who need identification (if you don’t understand why people don’t go to the DMV or the hospital, you will by the time you finish this book). Entire families and some individuals within families are able to escape lives free from police surveillance, custody and control by virtually living their lives inside their homes. Written in clear concise language with scrupulous reporting, readers are able to see through the eyes and experiences of Goffman—a young middle class white college student and daughter of two prominent sociologists—the unfair and disproportional treatment of people by police. Based on the evidence presented in this investigative sociological report, there’s not much more to say about the separate and unequal treatment of people by police and the courts.
HART, Carl. High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. HarperCollins. June 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.
Hart was the only black person in America to receive his PhD in neuroscience in 1996. Hart bares his life and soul as well as his scientific findings in an eye-opening book about drug addiction and society, showing how stereotypes and fear, hysteria and racism, have informed our drug policies and enforcements—not the reality of drug addiction. In fact, it is the policies and enforcements that have destroyed families, lives, and communities far beyond what any drug could do. Coming from a background filled with domestic violence, poverty, and “the streets,” Hart examines his life, work and science in deeply honest, profoundly insightful and provocative ways. Calling for education based on science, and then decriminalization of all drugs, he advocates for a drug policy based on fact, not fiction. Reading this book will forever impact and change what you think you know about drugs and society.
HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. Sept. 2014. 416p. Tr $27.00. ISBN 9781476731902.
Hobbs was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale. After his murder, Hobbs was compelled to understand more deeply the facts of Peace’s life and the full scope of the circumstances that led to his death. Peace grew up in poverty in New Jersey with a hardworking mother and drug-dealing father, both of whom valued and encouraged his education. Peace was inherently and effortlessly brilliant, graduating from Yale University with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Like the three doctors of The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream (Riverhead, 2003), Peace made it out of the ‘hood. Or did he? Unlike the three doctors, he was a rarity in his family and community to attain such levels of education. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. Peace’s life and death were impacted by race, poverty, and education; Hobbs brings these complex concepts into reality through the powerful narrative of the specifics of one young man’s life.
STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. Oct. 2014. 352p. Tr $28.00. ISBN 9780812994520.
Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and America is one of them. What is the one commonality of people on death row? The race of the victim: if the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard, and wondering why when he was called to an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. Face to face with this man, Stevenson realized his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill—the imprisoned. In heartbreaking and personal details, Stevenson interweaves real stories with statistics and his experiences fighting to change the injustices. Fast paced and relentless, Just Mercy reads like a Grisham novel, with short chapters featuring real people’s stories: children, youth and adults who have found themselves in the system since they were teens.
YAMINI, Omar. What’s Wrong With You! What You,Your Children, and Our Students Need to Know About My 15 Year Imprisonment From Age 20-35. Smashwords/The Proper Perception. January 2014. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780991574605.
Yamini was 20 years old when he was sent to prison for being an accessory to a crime, and spent the next 15 years locked up in various institutions in Chicago. Life in prison is not about the fear of being physically hurt, he says, but the reality of “being kept, treated and controlled like an animal.” It’s the reality of losing human dignity and the struggle to maintain it amidst the chaos, boredom, insanity, humiliations, and degradations that make up life in prison. Hoping that teens who read his experiences will reconsider their behavior in order to avoid the same fate places the book in the realm of “scared straight,” yet the day to day details of a 15-year prison term and what it’s really like will have readers questioning the validity and purpose of locking anyone up.
ZEMAN, Marybeth. Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time. Vinegar Hill Press. Feb. 2014. pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780615953878.
Zeman, a juvenile detention center transitional counselor, created a library book cart as a way to connect with incarcerated kids in New York state institutions. Short chapters alternate between Zeman’s life and observations of and interactions with the teens she serves. As she rolls her book cart up and down the hallways readers hear the voices of the kids asking for the “book lady.” Anyone looking for reasons why someone would want to work with teens in custody, or beginning a simple library, will find Zeman’s tale of personal fulfillment encouraging.