Jailhouse Blues

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With 500 prisoners for every 100,000 residents, the United States penal system currently holds about 2.4 million inmates. This number has quadrupled since 1980 and has created a debt-sucking hole for its civilians. It costs taxpayers $21,00o to incarcerate the average prisoner for a year at a minimum-security federal prison and $33,000 for a maximum-security prison. However, most of these facilities are not overrun with murderers and rapists, but inmates who committed a drug offense. Those in for homicide only make up 1% while drug offenders make up 51%.[1] Furthermore the system is racially unjust. There have been numerous articles and research about the racial injustice of the penal system. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, tackled this controversial topic. She discovered that white students use heroin and cocaine seven times the rate of black students and crack at eight times the rate of black students. However, 80% of those sentenced for cocaine/crack laws are African American.[2]

Besides these statistics, the United States also manages a juvenile justice system. Like the adult penal system, the juvenile justice system is also broken. Despite the dropping rates of youth crime, the juvenile system continuously increases its inmates. Furthermore, studies have routinely shown that incarceration of youth is more expensive and less effective than rehabilitative and educational approaches.[3] Many authors have attempted to tackle this controversial subject. Some, such as Susan Kuklin and Richard Ross, approach from an informational standpoint, while others-Walter Dean Myers and Paul Volponi-enlighten their read readers through fictional accounts. Most of these books have no issue with getting in their readers’ faces and forcing them to contemplate how should the justice system be handled. However, it is up to the readers to make that decision.

Young Adult Book

3466294 No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin

In No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row Susan Kuklin takes her readers onto death row. Interviewing and recording six different stories, Kuklin presents teens sentenced to death. However, Kuklin routinely highlights specifics about each case. We learn about teens who were lured into committing a violent act by following an older sibling and friend. Some even took the downfall so their loved one could remain out of jail. Others were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Majority of the young men interviewed believed they deserved to be punished and make no excuses for their actions. What is unfortunate is that many of these inmate are serving a life sentence for a crime they committed at 13.

It is very evident that Kuklin is against the death penalty and presents facts of why.  Readers are pushed to question if a young teen should be punished for the rest of their lives for something they committed in their early teens. Many of the teens she interviewed also expressed remorse at the actions they took. The book is not necessarily groundbreaking, but Kuklin presents these cases in a way that demonstrates that life isn’t black or white.

This would be an interesting bookclub book because of the issues presented. However, the group would need to be willing to agree to disagree, as the book has a controversial topic.

Adult Book

15779249 Juvenile in Justice by Richard Ross

This is an extremely fast but captivating read. For five years Richard Ross traveled across the country and talked with children and teens in the juvenile system. Taking over a 1000 pictures in over 250 facilities, Ross attempts to show the grim and destitute conditions of the juvenile system. Ross captures children in different facilitates and inserts interviews with the pictures. Furthermore, he includes facts about the juvenile system. Facts include how many girls in the system have been sexually abused and how a child may be placed in the system for refusing to eat a bagel. The book might be simple, but it is impacting.

I would probably recommend this book to be a companion book for a novel about incarcerated youth. I think students might enjoy discussing the situations. It might also reach reluctant readers with its lack of text.

Gurnee’s FYA Book Club

842087 Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Before he was an award-winner children’s author, Jack Gantos was pot-smoker drug smuggler. In 1971 Gantos was seeking literary enlightenment through adventure. Gantos eventually said yes to smuggling over 2,000 pounds of hash in exchange for $10,000.  His luck ran out when the authorities caught up to him.

The bookclub really enjoyed this book. At 192 pages Hole in My Life was an extremely fast and enjoyable read. Gantos’ life is extremely interesting. Most of the club was shocked that his parents allowed him to live alone during his high school years. We also discussed how Gantos continuously ran into trouble but miraculously came out unscathed.

I thought the book fit pretty well with my incarcerated youth unit. We discussed if Gantos had deserved his original lengthy sentence. In addition, many of the parents were appalled by the lifestyle that Gantos had lived. Two expressed concerns that they did not want to their teenage sons to read this book, as they were afraid they would be influenced to particpate in the same activities. This sparked an interesting conversation. We discussed how reading statistics have routinely shown that children who read about events are less likely to participate in those activities than those who do not read.


44184 Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Written in the style of a movie script, Monster takes its reader into the trial of a Steve Harmon. Convicted of assisting in a convenience store hold-up and murder, Steve reflects on how one mistake can impact his life.

This would be a great read aloud in a classroom. Teachers will also have the opportunity to investigate an unreliable narrator.

7099273 The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

Two boys are born into similar backgrounds. Missing fathers, similar crews, and troublesome circumstances lead both boys potentially down the same path. However, decisions and choices will take one boy to a successful career and the other to a life sentence.

6314763 Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison by Piper Kerman

In 1993 Piper Kerman smuggled drugs from the United States to Brussels out of love. 10 years later and with only weeks away from her crime expiring, Piper was indicated on drug trafficking and money laundering crime. For 15 months, Piper has to learn how to navigate prison life.

Orange is the New Black has been turned into a successful Netflix series.

Other Recommendations

Riker’s High by Paul Volponi

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers


[1] Ezra Klein and Even Soltas, “Wonkbook: 11 facts about America’s prison population,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2013, accessed April 17, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/13/wonkbook-11-facts-about-americas-prison-population/.

[2] Morgan Whitaker, “Criminal Injustice: The Percentage of African-Americans in Prison.” MSNBC, September 23, 2013, accessed April 18, 2014, http://www.msnbc.com/politicsnation/criminal-injustice-the-percentage-african.

[3] Alex Piquero and Laurence Steinberg, “Rehabilitation Versus Incarceration of Juvenile Offenders: Public Preferences in Four Models for Change States,” MacArthur Foundation, December 11, 2007, accessed April 18, 2014, http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/WILLINGNESSTOPAYFINAL.PDF


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