Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun?
To a 16-year-old, Michael’s original sentence “was equivalent, in psychological terms, to the whole of his life,” Allen notes, considering that children can barely remember what happened to them before the age of 3. For the young prisoner, traditional milestones are skipped; newer, grimmer ones take their place. “First racial melee,” she writes. “First administrative segregation, also known as first solitary confinement. First sodomization.”
One of the most disastrous consequences of spending your adolescence in prison is that it’s almost inevitable you’re going to fall in love while you’re there. That’s what happened to Michael. The romantic options he faced were limited, and not exactly savory. He attached himself to his girlfriend, Bree — a beautiful transgender prisoner with a record of violent assault — as only an adolescent can, with a wild sort of intensity. His devotion had lethal repercussions. After they were both released, Bree killed him in her kitchen.
Allen has a personal stake in Michael’s story. She’s his first cousin, though the distance between her opportunity horizons and his could be measured in light years. Her father, one of 12 children, was an academic. Allen is a high-flying scholar herself. (She’s a political theorist at Harvard, and the director of its Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; she was also awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2001.) Michael’s mother, the youngest of the dozen, was a single mother who didn’t have a stable phone number and found herself in abusive relationships.
As the resource-rich superstar of the family, Allen was the “cousin-on-duty” to smooth Michael’s reentry into the world after prison. Yet she couldn’t, which leads the reader to a sickening realization. If Michael — a bright kid, disciplined enough to run the Los Angeles Marathon as a 15-year-old — couldn’t overcome the difficulties of returning to civilian life, who could? Especially with so attentive and dedicated an ally as his cousin, who was willing to guarantee his rent, help him enroll in college and rehearse job-interview strategies with him?