REVIEW: Harvard Professor Danielle Allen on Trying to Save Her Troubled Cousin

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This review first appeared in The National Book Review:

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle Allen

Liveright 256 pp.

By Jim Kaplan

Danielle Allen's Cuz will break your heart. Of the recent books that have done so much against such great odds to create a meaningful anti-incarceration movement in America, it may be the most compelling.

In some ways, Danielle Allen’s story is quite simple: it is about the life of her first cousin, Michael Allen, who grew up in a poor part of South Central Los Angeles while she, a few years older, had an easier path in the affluent college town of Claremont, a few miles away.

Danielle's life was high achieving from the start. Michael's was not. Both were smart and ambitious, but the fate of each was affected (maybe determined) by their immediate families and environment. Michael's family was poor, often unstable, and lacked crucial resources that could have helped advance him. Danielle's immediate family and environment were everything his was not.

Michael ended up spending the vast majority of his too-short life, from the age of 15, in prison, and he was murdered by a close prison friend before he reached 30. Danielle is now a Harvard professor. The book provides every reason to believe the two had similar potential. Danielle provides several chapters with samples of Michael's prison writing, both on literary and religious topics, and his absorbing description of his wildfire fighting while on assignment from his prison. But their very different outcomes flowed from very different childhood experiences.

What also comes through is that the law enforcement system of courts and prisons (sometimes called the “justice” system -- now there’s a euphemism!) made everything worse. Michael’s life was ruined by a one-week crime spree that took place when he was a child of 15. He illegally obtained a firearm, held up two people (two strikes), and then failed at an attempted carjacking (strike three, and California had a three-strikes law that dramatically increased Michael’s punishment). He did not deliberately fire the gun at anyone. In the struggle over the attempted carjacking with his intended victim, the gun went off. The only person injured was Michael.

In a reasonably humane system, with no one injured and considering Michael’s age, he would have been treated as a juvenile, given intensive rehabilitation and counseling, and attempts would have been urgently made to reintegrate him into society as soon as it was deemed safe for him and others.

Instead, at every step, the approach embraced by police, prosecutors, judges, and state corrections officials was to isolate, punish, humiliate, and degrade. From just after his sentencing at age 16, he was sent to high-security adult prisons whose major focus was retribution, torture, and isolating their charges from society. And his sentence was over 12 years for what was a non-violent offense by a child. The sentence was part of the usual highly coercive “plea bargain” process. Even with children, prosecutors generally play hardball, and judges (and unfortunately, juries) routinely rubber-stamp their decisions. If the plea had not been accepted, the Allens understood, a trial verdict of guilty would have sent Michael to prison for 25 years to life.

The harsh sentence Michael received was significant in several respects. First, it meant that instead of a brief period of punishment, of being perhaps “scared straight,” after which he could have reconciled to society, he was fully integrated over a too-lengthy period into the violent and degrading counterculture of prison life. Second, given his young age -- a period when children still need the day-to-day support of their families -- he was removed from his home and placed in a setting that vacillated between openly hostile and negligently uncaring. The resulting (and understandable) anger on his part, his eventual romantic liaison with a transgender fellow inmate, and his post-release violent adult life -- which ended with his murder by his lover’s hand, was, in its broad outlines, all too common and predictable given what had gone before it.

Danielle Allen brilliantly and searingly lays all of this out, including her dogged efforts to assist Michael, both during and after his prison time. In prison, she encouraged his writing and his pursuit of college-level education; afterwards, she tried to set him up with a job, a college, and a residence. Danielle lets us know in numerous ways that Michael was bright enough, ambitious enough, and persistent enough to succeed, but his past kept pulling him back. He ended up back in prison for a parole violation, then out again, and then finally murdered a short time thereafter. Cuz strongly leads us to believe that the horrific combination of Michael’s early years and his prison years were simply too much to overcome, despite his family’s best efforts.

What is left after such a nightmarish story of family tragedy and so much personal promise destroyed? Danielle Allen’s book leads us naturally to a program for reform, although she does not focus on advocacy of any particular policy. She does strongly contend that government policies, particularly the so-called War on Drugs, have created a “parastate” within many African-American communities that effectively destroys young people’s lives before they have truly begun.

Aside from urgently needed policies to eradicate poverty (like minimum wage increases, unionization, affordable housing and safer neighborhoods, particularly for children), any plan for eliminating stories like Michael Allen’s must squarely face the incarceration plague -- particularly juvenile incarceration -- that is the unfortunate and largely suppressed cornerstone of the U.S, law enforcement system. As Danielle Allen demonstrates in her remarkable book, the system destroys everything it touches: lives, families, neighborhoods, and cities, and it even threatens the country (and democracy) as a whole. It is long past time to address individual tragedies like Michael’s in a sweeping, compassionate, and comprehensive manner.

No one understood the grim plight society had laid out for Michael better than Michael himself. He wrote to his older cousin Danielle from prison about Dante’s Inferno:

And like Dante I am forced to descend lower into hell to achieve a full awakening. I am forced into depression, scarred by obscenities, war after war, but each war that I survive I am a step closer to a full awakening of self. My hell is no longer demonstrating what I am capable of doing in order to survive. It has become what I can tolerate and withstand in order to live. I cannot help but to judge those around me. I am one of them but we are far from the same.

Michael also wrote that he thought, like Dante, he had discovered a way out of hell. He was, tragically, not right about that, but his words should inspire us to find a way out for the children who come after him.

Jim Kaplan is a Chicago lawyer who has been practicing for nearly 40 years, mainly in the corporate and banking areas. On a pro bono basis, he has worked on and led teams of attorneys who through amicus briefs and other appellate advocacy, have contributed to the exoneration of a dozen young people wrongly convicted of murder. He is active on the advisory boards of both the Northwestern Law School Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Chicago Law School Public Interest Initiative.