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Book Review

I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup

From the introduction—“[this book] tells the stories of the men and women—inmate, uniformed staff, and civilian—who moved
in and out of the county lockup during my 10 years there. Some were there for only weeks, some for months, others for years. Yet each of their stories helped me erode and finally cross the line in the sand I resolutely drew between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that first day in the visitors’ lobby.

“Ultimately, each of their stories has the power to help all of us realize
that there really is no line to erode, no line to cross, that all the divisions we are quick to define, all the barriers we are quick to put up—of the haves and have-nots; of the keepers and the kept; of the right and wrong, the good and
bad—are no more substantial than the sand itself we Americans are so ready to draw a line through.”

Since the early 1990s, thanks to inflamed rhetoric in the media about “superpredators” and a wave of get-tough-on-crime laws, the number of juveniles in prison has risen by 35%, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and their placement in adult prison has increased by 208%, according to a 2007 survey by the Campaign for Youth. Since 1992, every state except Nebraska has passed laws making it easier to prosecute youth under 18 as adults, and most states have legalized harsher sentences for juveniles.

David Chura taught high school in a New York county penitentiary for 10 years and saw these young people—and the effects of our laws on them—up close. Here he introduces us to the real kids behind the hysteria: vibrant, animated kids full of humor and passion; kids who were born into families broken up and beaten down by drugs, gang violence, AIDS, poverty, and abuse. He also introduces us to wardens, correctional officers, family members, and doctors, and shows how everyone in this world is a child of disappointment.

We meet Wade, who carries a stack of photos of his HIV-positive mother in his pocket to take out and share with pride. Khalil has spent all 15 years of his life in foster care, group homes, juvenile detention, and mental hospitals, yet has channeled his inner demons into poetry. There’s Anna, a hard-nosed, one-time teenage drug baroness who serves as a tutor to students and older women alike; Dominic, a father of two who only reads in jail, and only the Harry Potter books; and Eddyberto, a bright student and self-taught artist whose wildly creative drawings are confiscated and used to accuse him of being a potential terrorist and threat to national security.

Then there’s O’Shay, a big, burly, snarling Bronx, Irish classroom officer with a surprising protective side for the underdog, and Ms. Wharton, a hallway officer with a spiky demeanor but a soft spot for animals.

In often gritty language, David Chura breaks down the divisions he says we so easily erect between us and them, the keepers and the kept—and argues how, ultimately, we as individuals and as a society have failed these young people.