Hidden Truth
California Lawyer

Hidden Truth

Young Men Navigating Lives In and Out of Juvenile Prison

March 2011

Hidden Truth: Young Men Navigating Lives In and Out of Juvenile Prison
by Adam D. Reich
University of California Press, 288 pages, $21.95, paperback




There is an acronym used by the staff at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles to describe the lives of many of their detainees and why they ended up there: "NFC." The N stands for "no," the C for "chance." I'll leave it up to you to figure out the F. It may be crude, but NFC is a reminder that we are dealing with kids, and like all kids they are subject to the influences of the environments in which they grow up.

In Hidden Truth, Adam Reich takes the reader inside the minds of teenage offenders in Rhode Island Training School, the state's only juvenile prison. As a sophomore at Brown University, Reich began writing workshops inside the Training School and helped publish a newspaper, named by its incarcerated staff writers Hidden TREWTH. Using that experience as well as interviews and exhaustive research conducted over almost six years, Reich analyzes how the ideal of masculinity as defined by the social structures of the inmates' lives is often at the root of and enforces their antisocial and law-breaking behavior.

The "game" metaphor littered throughout the inmates' writing ("I'm eighteen years old, that's eighteen years gone to the game") lends its name to Reich's constructs: the "Game of Law" and the "Game of Outlaw," where young men with few prospects of success through traditional means such as school or a steady job engage in other means of obtaining status. What we find through the inmates' own words and Reich's detailed analysis is that incarcerated teenagers, like most other teenagers, often act out of typical adolescent motivations--desire for respect and for peer approval.

The inmates' writing and commentary are poignant, often acknowledging their mistakes on the outside, and at the same time offering bracing insights into the circumstances that led them to act out. "I didn't have no love in my life," says Dan, a young white man. "I didn't have my mom or my dad, so I didn't have no one to show me love, so I just grew up really not caring and hatin' a lot of stuff. So as time went on I started chillin' with people I thought that loved me, or showed me love ... I started drinkin' with them and chillin' with them and smoking, among other things we used to do."

Hidden Truth is not easy reading. Reich's in-depth academic analysis of his subjects makes his prose heavy sledding, and often it sounds more like a doctoral thesis than a narrative. Regardless, his insight into the minds and motivations of our most inherently redeemable population of inmates should be essential reading for criminology students and for anyone working with at-risk youths.

Ian Graham is a lawyer in Los Angeles and the author of Unbillable Hours: A True Story, about his pro bono representation of a teenager falsely accused of murder.

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