The author’s note hooked me:
“The overwhelming majority of incidents that occur in this book really happened. I witnessed them firsthand during the six years I worked as a teacher on Rikers Island. The fiction here is the creation of a protagonist who represents the actual experiences of several student-inmates.”
I’m glad I finally read this novel. We’d had it at both schools, but I didn’t like the cover and hadn’t looked into it until recently. (I know, I know, ‘Don’t judge a book . . .’)
Inmate Forty—whose real name is Martin—has been on Rikers Island (a real place with a real prison, in the East River in New York City) for five months. His crime is ‘steering.’ When asked by an undercover police officer where he could buy dope in the neighborhood, Martin told him. But Martin was also afraid not to answer this muscled, older dude when he asked. He hopes to have his story heard in court.
But court proceedings go wrong for Martin. His defending attorney is overwhelmed with too many clients. The judge in the case is placed on another case and Martin’s case falls through the cracks. He’s stuck for a while.
On one of his trips to court, Martin is shackled to another inmate who had been throwing hard looks at several guys. When the other guys see their chance to get back, Martin—chained as he is—cannot get away, and the guys cut his face while beating up the other inmate. The scar from this attack becomes a symbol of Martin’s experience on Rikers.
Martin learns to survive in a system where inmates try to take advantage of one another, where some adults are working for their good, other adults get their kicks by abusing the powerless, and still others are so dysfunctional that they don’t care how their behavior affects the inmates/students. One teacher, who loses a metal chalk holder, manages to bring the entire system to crisis with lockdowns and punishments, but doesn’t even understand the consequences (to others) of his lackadaisical attitude.
This is a good look at life for teens who are a part of the criminal justice system—of the racial relationships, the correctional officers, the teachers, and the hierarchies of inmates. The pace is quick, and the reader identifies with Martin. A good choice for reluctant readers. A page-turner.