4 out of 5 stars
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In Unlighted Places, Frank Malley presents a “sort of personal oral historical recollection." Although he indicates that much of the book is fictitious, as the names had been changed to protect the innocent, the book works very well as a memoir. I'm not particularly fond of memoirs. However, Unlighted Places moved me quite a bit.
After an early career as a budding musician and guitar teacher, Malley earned his bachelor’s degree in English. Following a few gigs as a substitute teacher, he accepted a job as an educator with the Hudson Valley Secure Center, a maximum-security prison for juvenile criminals just north of New York City. The residents of HVSC fell into three categories: violent criminals, drug dealers, and sex offenders. Many of these young men had committed crimes in more than one area. Malley was thrust into a difficult position to teach these troubled young men who demonstrated little interest in attending class, let alone learning skills other than those required to keep them alive while incarcerated. To make matters worse, the English teacher was assigned to teach math, his poorest subject.
Malley meticulously detailed his first day at the institution, the pitfalls into which new teachers in such an environment fell, the overshadowing specter of violence that lurked in every corner, and the frustration of teaching students who would rather sleep with their heads planted firmly on desktops than memorize multiplication tables. As Malley so adroitly recounted, the tension built in some classroom situations throughout his time at HVSC came across as frighteningly palpable.
I could identify with the story's events. I personally worked with juvenile offenders at the jail on Rikers Island in New York City during a tenure with New York City schools in the 1980s. I also provided services to several schools in poor neighborhoods where HVSC residents were born and raised. I recall the chill of being behind those jail cell bars at Rikers, and I identified with the initial concerns and doubts Malley carried with him during his first days on the job.
However, Unlighted Places is more than a fictionalized memoir. Malley used his story as a forum to discuss many issues critical at the time and still of import today. He commented on everything from student aptitude tests to HIV infection, rehabilitation programs, unscrupulous marketing methods, racism, the enormous power of African-American influence in United States culture, and the origins of anti-social behavior. He also drilled down into the minutia of everyday employment in prison, discussing the dangers a simple pencil may pose, how items get "lost" in prison, and how contraband is transported throughout the facility.
My favorite parts of the book were those that featured individual characters, especially the incarcerated residents. Although the author created false names for each of them, I could feel how real they were to his experience. Each had a different temperament and personality, which is interesting given the similarity and tragedy of the situations that led them to HVSC.
Malley's writing style is excellent; he has a remarkable command of language. Yet, his tone is conversational. In addition, he renders the conversations with residents and staff quite realistically, complete with a plethora of obscenities. Unfortunately, the version of the book I read appeared to be a draft manuscript rather than a finished book. This was the only aspect of the book that I didn't like. It was chockful of punctuation errors. As an English teacher, I felt the author should have been more careful with his periods and quotation marks. Still, despite the messiness of the text, the story was enjoyable, provocative, and highly informative.
Given the multitude of errors, I can only award Unlighted Places a rating of 4 out of 5 stars. Like the author, I wondered if things had changed dramatically in detention facilities since 1994. Should the author clean up the errors before publication, this will be an exceptional book, especially for new teachers, whether in a detention facility or not. I think anyone interested in the juvenile detention system or those entering the teaching profession will significantly benefit from reading this book.
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