Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

I apologize to readers for covering two so very different books in adjacent posts; even the titles may cause confusion. The two may share a basic plot–young man sent to prison–but they are different in every other respect. Unlike Alex, Reese did what he was originally arrested for: he stole prescription blanks from a doctor’s office. Unlike Smith’s prison, Myers’ is all too real. And kudos to Myers for writing this necessary sort of book so well!

As the book opens, Reese is being taken to his assignment in the prison’s work release program, a local assisted living facility where he is to provide light janitorial work. While he’s glad to get out of the prison, the suspicion he faces both from staff and residents is discomfiting, to say the least. As a level one prisoner, he has more freedom within the confines of the incarceration than the other kids in juvie; his cell lights go off at nine-thirty rather than eight-thirty, he can go to school (within the center), and go out on work-release. The other kids are in for different reasons–killing a classmate, robbing stores or just refusing to go to school–and gang activity is rife. Reese wants to do what it takes to get out and back to his family, but occasionally gets sucked into the fights, though he knows what that means for his chances of release.

The prison officials give him a second chance when this happens, not because they’re so sure about him but because they want to keep the work-release program going as a window for kids who are to come after Reese, who may themselves be more successful. This needles Reese into somewhat better behavior, as does the simple desire to be out of the facility even if only for a few hours. He is assigned to help Pieter Hooft, one of the residents of the assisted living facility, after the trash has been tidied away, and after a guarded start the two get to know each other a bit better. When Reese mentions another inmate who has little other than fight in him, Mr. Hooft describes his own childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and a similar boy there. This provides a bit of insight for Reese, but there is some sadness about Mr. Hooft’s own current situation, just as there is with Reese’s: the police are searching for more information about the drug dealing in his neighborhood and pull Reese in on the tip of a prison inmate, who is himself desperate to cut a deal with law enforcement, and the juvenile center’s plea to get Reese released early on good behavior is denied.

Reese’s parents are not together at the time the book is set–it’s not entirely clear whether they were married prior to that. His mother is a drug addict, well-educated enough to speak well when she’s clean. His father drinks, and when drunk, beats Reese. His younger sister, Isis (nicknamed Icy), dreams of a better life for herself and while she understands there will be work involved, believes that dreaming will help bring that future closer.

The book’s reading level is at perhaps a middle-grades skill level, but with a higher interest level. Myers does use strong language on occasion and included some violence, but with reasons for both: this is how the characters speak, and the book is set in a juvenile detention center. Overall, I’d recommend this book highly. (Not the author’s fault I’m not in the target demographic.) He touches on a few of the issues that kids like Reese might face, not least the all too common assumption of “You’re black. You’ve been incarcerated. Therefore you’re permanently bad.”, the aggravation of well-meaning social workers who do not speak his language and do not really understand his situation, and the lack of not just opportunity but lack of ability among his acquaintances to imagine how to go about climbing away from their situation. Not even Reese’s release at the end of his term seems really a happy ending–he faces too many challenges for that–but he is at least determined to give his little sister something better, if not himself; he continues working at the Evergreen facility where he served his work-release program, part-time after school, and uses the money for what he and his sister need, as their mother can provide little more than shelter.


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