Incarceration in YA


Prisons throughout history have been used to legally punish those who have committed a crime. When you think about prison your mind goes to a number of things such as gang violence, drugs, sexual assault, and a place rampant with corruption. Prison is a place where man has become animal and requires rehabilitation, a place where you’re stripped of your freedom and do as you’re told or else you’ll be sent to the Hole. Or maybe prison pop culture is exaggerating a bit.

YA novels support and play off the prison pop culture, but also mix in some realistic events and political views that are still present today. One thing to remember is that every prison isn’t run and operated by the same warden and guards, with that in mind there are multiple factors to determine how things play out which could either result in prisoners dying of boredom to modern day slaves.

Holes by Louis Sachar was published in 1998 and has matured beautifully. The book shined a light on the actions of prisons using prisoners as free labor, the equivalent of those actions are when the juvenile delinquents were used to dig holes in the hot desert of Texas. The grunt work was being passed off as “building character” when really they were used as slaves to search for hidden treasure buried by Kissin’ Kate Barlow’, a notorious Outlaw. The belittling of inmates is another trope the novel explorers, when Zero is mocked for his intelligence by the camp counselor ending with a shovel smashed into the counselors face. That moment is equivalent to respect in prison, if one person crosses the line with another it ends in violence, but it does depict the abuse of power from guards and wardens who believe the inmates are beneath them and treat them as such.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers shows the dark side of prison that everyone is very familiar with. The protagonist Steve Harmon is a teen on trial for his life for the alleged murder of a drugstore clerk. Steve is unable to cope with prison life, escaping into his screenplay based off his life. Inmates are violent, constantly discussing and acting on violence and sex. But what the story mainly centers on is internal conflict and racism, Steve is an African American from Harlem who begins to question whether he is a monster from the way the world around him is treating him. This gives us an insight on the many individuals who were branded guilty before any trial has taken place, how society judges you with little to no information at all making you question yourself even if you’re innocent. The story ends with Steve and a not guilty judgment; however he continues to question years later whether or not he is truly a monster.

A common theme between these novels is that “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t available among your peers, you’re judged and you’re labeled long before a trial is taken place, and many times the innocent are unfairly judged and punished for a crime they never committed.

PRW: Wala Abushaar


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