Kids in Cages

In June 2011, the State of California permanently shut down the Preston Youth Correctional Facility, a reform school for orphans and juvenile offenders that had been in operation for over a century ...

In June 2011, the State of California permanently shut down the Preston Youth Correctional Facility, a reform school for orphans and juvenile offenders that had been in operation for over a century. Since its inception in 1894, the school saw the rise and fall of variously strict, benevolent, neglectful, and sadistic regimes, all engaged in the manipulation of the minds of indigent youth. As is the case with so many progressive projects, the school’s aim—to provide an alternative to incarceration—was originally well intentioned. By the time it closed, however, Preston had become a symbol of the failure of state institutions; its mistreated inmates are said to haunt its mute hallways to this day.1

The Preston School and its failure provide the inspiration for Peyton Marshall’s first novel, Goodhouse, a dystopian parable set in the late 21st century that tells the story of James, a 17-year-old inmate of an institution built on the reform school’s ruins and guided largely by the same mission. This time, however, Peyton introduces a new and disturbingly plausible dimension: the boys have all been preselected for incarceration because they have inherited a gene that scientists have correlated with violent crime.

Originally designed to steer the boys away from a path of lawlessness and aggression, Goodhouse, as it is called, veers from its project in nefarious ways. The school’s imperious and ostentatious headmaster encourages students like James to work diligently at their work details on school grounds and in the local community, snitch on their friends when they break the rules, and acquiesce to potentially harmful drug testing carried out by greedy corporate scientists. If they’re lucky, they can exchange their “points” for pardons when they stray, and secure their placement in desirable jobs after graduating rather than face a life behind bars. Such collusion between private and public interests is only one of the many recognizable aspects of the world of Goodhouse. The action in the novel starts when James is assigned to a suburban middle-class home for his work detail and meets an inquisitive troublemaker named Bethany, with whom he has instant chemistry. When she resolves to break him out, James finds enemies on all sides; if the violent proctors, administrators, and scientists don’t catch him, surely the cruelly impoverished, ultra-religious, eugenics-minded arsonists known as “Zeros” living in nearby tent cities will. And even if he does manage to escape these multiple dangers, he still has to find a way to escape the prison, so carefully constructed, in his mind.

Throughout, Goodhouse relies perhaps a little too heavily on the clichés of its genre and, like The Hunger Games, indulges in the very violence it condemns. Marshall steers us through seedy black markets where tech-savvy punks hack security systems and underground ophthalmologists traffic in contraband eyeballs. There are implanted chips in citizens’ stomachs and dark experiments in secret underground facilities, robot policemen and fingerprint scanners, an across-the-tracks love story, and a lot of bone-crunching brutality—all of which are now ubiquitous in dystopian science fiction.

Goodhouse, which is told entirely from James’s perspective, most successfully transcends its rehearsal of Minority Report, Escape from LA, and Blade Runner when it portrays James’s self-concept—the ways he is made to think about his own nature, his future, and his place in the world. When he first encounters Bethany early in the novel, she asks him what he’s thinking: “I shook my head as if I didn’t understand. I was only ever thinking about the right thing to say—the thing that would show me in the best light. This wasn’t the same as having thoughts.” These windows to his internal world provide the novel’s most incisive moments and contribute more than any futuristic pyrotechnics to its political heart. It is nearly impossible to encounter them without being reminded of the ongoing incarceration crisis today.

Marshall alludes to race only once or twice, but the arbitrary nature of the boys’ selection for reform and their stigmatization unmistakably parallels our contemporary racialized, guilty-until-innocent carceral culture. The way James is made to feel that something is fundamentally wrong with him can be read as an analogue of the effect of over-policing and racial profiling today, when one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, and black and Hispanic primary school students are routinely given harsher punishments than their white peers.2 After the demonization of black youth that resulted in a no-trial verdict by a grand jury in Ferguson, such commentary on contemporary discipline and punishment resonates powerfully. Similarly, the heavily scrutinized poor are expected to be upstanding citizens, in both our world and Marshall’s, while the truly criminal minds orchestrating acts of violence and extortion go unpunished.

It is no wonder that dystopian sci-fi adventure stories are such blockbusters these days, when crises loom ominously and obscurely, threatening to burden a new generation with the sins of its parents. Global climate catastrophe seems imminent, the collapse of democracy under the weight of moneyed interests feels unavoidable or already complete, and the changes in the way we work foretell even worse abuses. Although admittedly tired, the genre of the pop dystopia hits its stride when it becomes a critique of the present, by extrapolating on technological advances and sociopolitical developments and showing us their potential outcomes. Goodhouse, like so many of its predecessors, sharpens the edge of our suspicions and shows us how our children’s futures depend so thoroughly on political choices in the present. icon

Featured image: Preston Castle, Ione, California. Killiondude / Wikimedia Commons