Title: Lockdown
Author: Walter Dean Myers
ISBN: 9780061214806
Pages: 247 pages
Publisher/Date: Amistad, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2010.

Something told me to mind my own business, but I went over to where Diego was sitting.
“What you want?” he asked.
“Why you messing with Toon?” I asked.
“Why’s it your business?”
“Toon ain’t nothing but a kid,” I said. “Why don’t you leave him alone?”
“Why your breath stink so much?” he asked.
“It’s from kissing your mama,” I said.
He stood up and I stood up with him. We were like right on top of each other and he was bigger than me, but I was looking him dead in his eyes.
Pugh came over and stood right next to us, just like we were standing, except next to us he looked like a big-assed white mountain.
“The first one of you jerks to throw a punch I’m gonna kill, bury, and then piss on his grave,” Pugh said. (26-27)

Fourteen-year-old Reese (short for Maurice Anderson) is locked up in Progress, a juvenile detention facility where most inmates leave only to enter real jail later. Reese has a chance to get out, especially when he becomes part of a work program at a senior citizen’s home. He is intent on getting out early and never returning, but he can’t help worrying over another inmate, nicknamed Toon. A new addition to the facility is causing trouble for Toon, and Reese can’t turn a blind eye, even if it might jeopardize his own standing in the eyes of his jailers.

I was expecting more from this book. I read Monster several years ago, and was blown away by it. I’ve been struggling to figure out why I didn’t react the same way to this book, and it still hasn’t fully come to me. Reese is a multi-layered character whose trying to do the right thing, even when it results in consequences for him. He understands the rules of the yard (don’t snitch on others, keep your opinions to yourself, be ready to defend against assault, etc.) but he also has his own ideas about what needs to be done.

I think inner city and urban teens might relate well to this story, which stresses the themes of brotherhood and loyalty, especially in an environment in which they view themselves as being responsible for their well-being. The system is a convoluted monster, which we see when the jailers are forced to decide what to do with an inmate that clearly shows promise but continues to handle his problems incorrectly. I would love to in the future do some work with inner city and incarcerated youth, because I know that they are a population that needs help and assistance, but I recognize that I don’t know enough to do any good just yet. I think new ideas and new blood are needed that aren’t already jaded, but we can’t be naive about the possibility of these projects failing or succeeding. We need to help our own students, children, and futures before it’s too late and the rolling avalanche has gathered too much momentum. I’ll entertain any ideas anyone might have on how to do that (without creating more red-tape). Feel free to post it in the comments or e-mail me directly.

Getting back to the story, I think the setting struck me more than the plot, as the life in a jail was poignantly described.

The detention cell is a little smaller than the rest of the cells and just about bare. There’s a small window near the ceilling, but it’s too high to see out of. If you run across the floor and jump up, you can see the sky, but that’s about it. The toilet is fourteen inches high, which means you have to squat down to use it. There is a water fountain, with a button on top. When you push the button, the water comes up from a small hole in the middle of the fountain. The water is warm. It comes up about an inch out of hte hole, so you have to put your mouth almost on top of it to get a drink. Nothing in the room sicks out more than a quarter of an inch except the door knob, and that is tapered so you can’t hook anything onto it. That way you can’t make a noose out of a strip of cloth or a shoelace. In the detention cell, you can’t kill yourself. (142-143)

Also portrayed with life-like description is the attitudes of the guards, the assisted living residents/staff, and the inmates themselves. Most were so resigned to the idea that Reese was going to be locked in the system that they weren’t even willing to look past that possibility.

I think I was able to relate more to Toon, the boy who was getting bullied in prison and under pressure from his parents because of his incarceration. You see the effects that his shame for dishonoring his family has on him by the end of the book. This is another person who was trying really hard to keep his head down and out of trouble, and I wish we had a separate location for these kids who really did want to make something out of their lives as opposed to the kids who have already assumed the life of a career criminal.

All in all, I think Walter Dead Myers makes more of an impact with his social commentary than his story’s plot. And while it’s important to consider these aspects of the story, I wish we had gotten to learn more about the characters in the process.