During his year as a children’s attendant in Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Mark Dostert loses count of the number of boys he meets who’ve been shot. Eventually their “names, faces, and disfigured flesh patches blur into a single mass of resignation, the boys’ and mine.”
The children are indeed a blur in Up in Here. Dostert’s exchanges with them are brief and superficial, and he often conjectures wildly on these traces. We learn instead mainly about Dostert’s growing disenchantment with his job.
While a student at the Moody Bible Institute, the Texas native led bible studies as a volunteer at the center, which is on the near west side at 1100 S. Hamilton. Still known locally by its original name, the Audy Home, the center holds children waiting to be tried in juvenile court, and in some instances in adult court. The vast majority are boys, ages ten through 17.
After graduating from Moody, Dostert gets the attendant job, hoping to be a big brother to the children. He discovers that his role isn’t to counsel or comfort, but to help keep order. The residents sometimes dis each other’s gangs, smuggle in contraband, stuff bedding sheets in toilets to cause them to overflow, and fight; the attendants struggle to control them. Dostert’s not very good at it, which causes him to doubt his “manhood.” Much of Up in Here is about the humiliation the job causes him. “Retaining my dignity by not taking shit from children . . . now seems my only possible mission here,” he writes. He stays a full year largely because he worries that quitting sooner will mar his resumé.
Many of Dostert’s fellow attendants are even more cynical about their jobs and about the kids they’re trying to keep in line. They look the other way at abuse by colleagues and cover up incidents with phony reports. Residents who won’t quit pounding the walls of their rooms and screaming are sometimes ordered to strip. When one stripped child keeps pounding and screaming, an attendant douses him with a pitcher of ice water, telling him, “You’re a bad motherfucker now, huh?” The child quiets down. Dostert’s response is not to report mistreatment, but to write in a book years later that Audy Home attendants sometimes must “employ a bad means to justify a good end.”
Dostert’s account is dated. The year he chronicles began in 1997 and ended in 1998. In 2007, an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit forced the county to bring in a juvenile justice expert as chief administrator. Under ACLU pressure, county officials finally conceded that housing hundreds of troubled children in one building only caused further harm, and diversion programs have helped to greatly reduce the daily population, from 800 in the early 2000s to about 350 now. With fewer residents, staff presumably feel compelled less often to employ bad means to justify good ends.