Unbroken in the Era of Mass Incarceration

There once was a boy with no respect for limits. He is rumoured to have had his first encounter with the police at just age 2 – when he climbed naked through his bedroom window and ran down the street, an officer in hot pursuit. His mother had no control over him. He seemed to get himself into every scrape imaginable, and into some unimaginable scrapes, too.

That boy was trouble. He was smoking by age 5 and drinking by age 8. He was known for thievery and vandalism. Beyond the thrill of delinquency, he turned a profit by dealing in stolen loot. As he grew older, he became increasingly belligerent. He was the ringleader for a gang of tough troublemakers. He was physically aggressive toward women, his teachers, and even the police. Terrorized by the boy’s misdeeds, the neighbors did not know what to do. Some threatened to shoot him. Others called the police, who spent many hours with the boy and his parents, stressing the gravity of the situation. The boy merely adjusted his tactics to avoid getting caught red-handed.

And so goes the account of the first decade and a half in the life of Louis Zamperini, who, instead of spending his remaining days in the custody of the United States Department of Corrections or saddled with a criminal record, got into sports in high school, went to college for track, became a national hero as an Olympic athlete, and then later was a celebrity bombardier in the Air Force. Zamperini was captured by the Japanese and spent more than 2 years as a Japanese POW. In 2010, Laura Hillenbrand published, Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini. In 2014, the account of this extraordinary life became a motion picture.

I read Unbroken at the behest of my father, whose enthusiasm for all things WWII and religious redemption made Hillenbrand’s book particularly appealing. I read it dutifully, but did not find in it an inspiring and uplifting account of the resilience of the human spirit. Instead, I never recovered from the tremendous sadness I felt after the first chapter. In that chapter, “The Boy Insurgency”,  we learn all the terrible things that young Zamperini did – his “childhood of artful dodging” and the “dangerous young man” he was becoming before his older brother managed to get the school to allow him to play sports despite his failing grades and troublesome behaviour. I couldn’t get past the fact that this delinquent, who went on to have such a noteworthy life, never ended up behind bars and instead was given chance after chance by law enforcement who quipped, after Louis began his career as a runner, that he had learned his craft by running from them.

I don’t begrudge Zamperini the opportunity to redeem himself. On the contrary, I wish his story was less exceptional. How many celebrity athletes that would be war heroes that would be religious supporters of young people do we lose in the era of mass incarceration? How many physicists, doctors, inventors, painters, and poets never have the opportunity to rise to their full potential because their days of “artful dodging” are never overlooked and their status as “dangerous young men” lands them in adult corrections instead of in a cherished spot on the high school (and then college) track team?

In my reading, Unbroken is a testament to all that is lost when young (most typically black and latino) men, are profiled and harassed by broken windows policing. The book shows in bright contrast all that we sacrifice when incorrigible boys and young men are locked away during the years when they should be discovering their potential. Unbroken forces us to wonder what our young men might accomplish if, as they matured, they were not marked by the stigma of a criminal record. In reading Hillenbrand’s accounts of the horrors of the Japanese POW camps, I cannot help but reflect on the gross injustice of our own penal system.

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