Posts Tagged ‘Bryan Stevenson’

By  , published in School Library Journal on February 18, 2015

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.

just mercyThe 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.

Burning down the houseNell 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.

on the runFor 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.

high priceHart 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.

short and tragic lifeHobbs 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.

whats wrong with youYamini 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.

jailhouse librarianZeman, 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.

Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and Incarceration

When yet another Black boy is shot down or locked up, it’s a wake-up call to all of us to understand and challenge the systematically enforced racism that allows—in fact, ensures—this to happen. We are way past the crisis point. If you, your friends, or family members haven’t experienced the societal trauma of living in America being Black or Brown or poor, one of the many things you can do is to increase your awareness. If you have, the following selections can  provide hope and context on this dire situation.

lionheart1 Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationLionheart: Coming from Where I’m From by Rayshawn Wilson is my current top pick for youth and adults alike. Wilson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, knowing how to cook up a batch of crack, steal food from the grocery store in order to survive, and lie—all learned experiences due to his environment at birth. When he was six years old, his house was invaded by the police, guns drawn. He was put into the backseat of a police cruiser, terrified, watching as his crack-addicted mother was handcuffed and taken away. Thus began a journey that too many African American, Latino, and poor teens in this country have experienced: foster care, sexual abuse, and life on the streets. And for some, breaking into people’s homes and dealing drugs. “Crime was as constant as breathing and provided more promise than tomorrow,” Wilson writes.

After serving two years for a crime he did not commit, the young man became the first person in his family to graduate from college. How he got from his beginnings as a child of a single, drug-addicted mother (and fortunately, Wilson shows us a depth beyond that label) to multiple college degrees, among many other accomplishments, is stuff that will keep teens engaged and turning pages. Self-published, the book is well-written with a forward-moving narrative and just the right mixture of the young kid and teen action-filled years balanced with his later more adult transformations. There is too much type on the page and not enough white space, and I personally think the title and cover are a bit strange, but these are slight downsides of this terrific memoir.

just mercy Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationOnly a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and the United States is one of them. Most people are not aware that theone commonality of people on death row is the race of the victim. If the victim was white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Unacceptable: black lives matter. In heartbreaking and personal detail, Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption interweaves real stories with these statistics and his fight to change these injustices. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard and wondering why, when he accepts an internship in Georgia, where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This brought him face to face with what became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, and the mentally ill—— the imprisoned. He writes specifically about the South — though he covers these topics at a national level in the book. It’s as much a story about Stevenson as it is about the many people of whom he writes.

Chapters either feature one complete narrative, such as the story of the Confederate loving guard who makes Stevenson strip search before he’s allowed to enter the facility or an entry that moves the overall narrative further at a fast pace. Included are stories of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens, including the story of Walter as a through-line. Walter was at a barbeque with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of committing, and spent more than six years on death row. This book is a standout choice for teens and adults, illuminating the big picture and personal details of the unjust experiences faced by too many black, brown, and poor people in the U.S.

robert peace Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationI can’t see many if any teens reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, mainly because it’s written at a distance from the protagonist by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s college roommate. Still, it’s a book that has stayed with me since I read it months ago, and felt it important enough to include here. 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 major in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. NPR has chosen it as one of their top books of 2014. Shannon Rhoades, NPR’s Morning Edition staffer says, “Reading the book, you become witness to tremendous potential lost, and you’ll think about race, education and poverty in ways that perhaps you hadn’t before. It can make for excruciating reading at times—excruciating, yet essential.”

Let Me Live 195x300 Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationLet Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated is an anthology of writings by youth from four different national lockdowns. It’s published by a volunteer organization in St. Paul, MN, Save the Kids. There is some good stuff in here. It’s simple to read, and black-and-white graphics created by young people are included. The poem titles are in nice hip hop–type style, and the voices are raw (no moralizing here!). Typed versions of each selection with mostly corrected spelling are displayed alongside a photocopy of the real piece each kid wrote. Overall, it’s real, authentic and relevant.

Here’s an example of a poem I liked which shows a lot of insight as to the pointlessness of prison:

“Time In Here” by Dion

It’s not different from the streets it seems
in there the colors is gray and green
in here I hear people talk smack
sometimes it makes me mad, and sometimes
it makes me wanna jap.
I hear foul language
I hear kids bein’ angry
and that makes me stay the same me.

While some are less insightful, the simplicity is important as it shows the immaturity of the youth.

“Sometimes” by Dominique

I’m in jail n’ it feel like hell. Ma don’t pick
up the phone sometimes I feel all alone
Sometimes I call on people but still I’m alone
Sometimes I feel right. Sometimes I feel
wrong.

Bottom line, these are the voices of incarcerated kids and we need to hear them. We need to read books written by and about people in the underground— review, purchase, and have them in our collections in order to serve our communities. And in so doing, perhaps we can make a dent in the profound and horrifying inequities and injustices in our so called democracy.

The reading list below includes not only the books mentioned above, but examples of essential books to read to increase awareness and become as educated as we can.

Reading Challenge: In the comments section, please suggest more titles that can inspire readers to do something about cycles of poverty, race, and incarceration.

ALEXANDER, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press. 2012. 336p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781595586438.

To the End of June 199x300 Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationBEAM, ChrisTo the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Mariner Bks. 2014. 336p. pap. $12.67. ISBN 9780544103443.

BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. New Press. 2014. 319p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.

high price Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and IncarcerationHART, Carl. High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Harper. 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884; pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.

HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. 2014. 416p. Tr $27. ISBN 9781476731902.

MAUER, Marc and Sabrina Jones. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling. New Press. 2013. 128p. pap. $17.95. ISBN  9781595585417.

PARSELL, T.J. Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison. Da Capo Pr. 2007. 336p. pap. $12.00. ISBN 9780786720378

RIOS, Victor M. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York University Pr. 2011. 173p. pap. $24. ISBN 9780814776384.

SAVE THE KIDS. Let Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated (Poetry Behind the Walls). Arissa Media Group. 2013. 138p. pap. $10.69. ISBN 9781936900220.

STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 352p. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994520.

TAIBBI, Matt. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 448p. pap. $12.95.  ISBN 9780812983630.

TILTON, Jennifer. Dangerous or Endangered: Race and the Politics of Youth in Urban America. New York University Pr. 2010. 242p. pap. $27. ISBN 9780814783122.

WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From. Legendary Publishing. 2014. 196p. pap. $15. ISBN 9780982786321.

Published originally in School Library Journal, Dec 16, 2014