Up in Here Falls Flat in Form, But Starts a Necessary Conversation

Up in Here is the memoir of writer Mark Dostert. Having written for publications like Salon and the Houston Chronicle, Dostert has written Up in Here, his first full book, about his experience as a prison guard at Chicago’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (referred to as the Audy Home), offering a rare glimpse into Chicago’s legal justice system in action. In a cultural landscape where the majority of writing about troubled youth comes from non-profits that only tell of terrible backgrounds and hopeful futures rather than difficult presents (because of obvious funding reasons), this rare account is spectacularly honest in the difficulties of dealing with this population.

Dostert begins his time as a prison guard hoping to mentor young inmates and put into practice academia-approved philosophies of care. His savior complex deep rooted and his roots in the white suburbs of Texas, Dostert painfully learns two lessons: the Audy Home fails its sequestered youth and staff and he does not belong there.

The former is why Up in Here is required reading for anyone interested in social change. The latter is what makes Up in Here an unenjoyable reading experience.

From tedious pacing to poor sentence clarity, Up in Here is literally not easy to read. Harder to swallow is Dostert’s constant fixation on slights to his masculinity. The memoir unfolds linearly rather than thematically, so every chapter is another episode of Dostert’s manhood being threatened either by inmates or coworkers.

Dostert is trying to show us how working within the system wears down those who are meant to maintain it, but his constant agonizing over his place at Audy Home is unnecessarily repetitive at best and distractingly narcissistic at worst. Sure, the book is a memoir and meant to focus on Dostert and his experience, but the book fails to do so in an engaging way. Each chapter would do well when read alone, but as an aggregate of chapters with different characters and the same underlying message, Up in Here is a challenge to get through.

That being said, Dostert’s account is a necessary one.

In college, I had partaken in an Inside Out course, and all “outside” students were given a tour of the prison. Immediately after the tour, we talked about how rough the guards were with inmates and suspicious the warden was, as if we as 18- to 22-year-olds knew anything about what it took to keep the peace in prison. It’s pretty easy to criticize the shit out of things you don’t fully understand, like prison practices, but criticism is not reformation.

While Dostert was a prison guard from 1997 to 1998, his account is timely in understanding the “guard vs. inmates” mentality, especially when there is a lack of such local narratives. He explains what causes this antagonistic mindset: a combination of insufficient training and lack of support on the ground. Even when the administration wants to implement less aggressive tactics, Dostert finds himself frustrated even when he understands the philosophy behind new policies.

This is a narrative unafraid to be politically incorrect. Dostert speaks his truth: working with violent youth is not some fairytale with a happy ending. It’s scary, tense, and ultimately, something that even those with the best intentions cannot do.

You can buy Up in Here online from the University of Iowa Press here for $19.

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