The story begins with a harrowing description of a single man’s experience in jail. From the first-person perspective, the audience learns of the narrator’s violent conditions in prison. The narrator explains that in prison, the only time he is able to cry is at night. Crying is perceived as weakness, and those that express this emotion are subsequently attacked and taken advantage of. The narrator then looks at a mirror inside of his jail cell and dissociates, unable to recognize the image in the reflection.
The story then transitions to take the format of a screenplay. The audience is transported to a Manhattan detention center, where sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is seated on the edge of a metal cot. Within the opening pages, the audience learns that Steve chronicles his experience in prison by “writing and directing” a film. Kathy O’Brien, Steve’s defense attorney, explains to her client the severity of his felony murder charge. O’Brien urges that Steve take the trial seriously, as the jury is considering the death penalty.
The reader is then placed inside of the courtroom. The audience is introduced to James King, the 23-year-old man who is also on trial. There is also Sandra Petrocelli, the prosecutor, and Asa Briggs, the defense attorney for James King. As the Judge motions to bring in the jury, Steve digresses to think about a particular memory from his film club at Stuyvesant High School. His advisor, Mr. Sawicki, explains that viewers “serve as a kind of jury” when watching a film.
Sandra Petrocelli offers her opening remarks. She explains that on December 22, two men entered a drugstore in Harlem with the intention to rob the owner. The owner took out a gun in self-defense, which was then turned against him. As a result, 55-year-old Alguinaldo Nesbitt was murdered. The State argues that two men were involved in the murder: Richard “Bobo” Evans and James King.
Steve Harmon has been accused of being the “lookout” during the time of the robbery. Although he was not directly involved in the altercation that resulted in murder, he still faces the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Kathy O’Brien offers her opening remarks, asserting Steve’s innocence. Asa Briggs introduces himself to the court as the defense attorney for James King. Jose Delgado takes the witness stand.
Jose explains that he left the drugstore, where he worked to buy Chinese food. Upon his return to work, he found Mr. Nesbitt in a pool of blood on the ground. Jose tells the courtroom that five cigarette cases were missing from the register. Salvatore Zinzi, a middle-aged man serving time at Rikers Island, then takes the witness stand. Zinzi testifies that a fellow inmate at Rikers named Wendell Bolden knew of Mr. Nesbitt’s murder and wanted to turn him in in order to “catch a break.” Zinzi explains that he stole Bolden’s story in order to avoid sexual harassment in jail.
Steve intersperses the courtroom scene with an excerpt from his diary. He comments on his hatred of jail, and his need to record experiences in his journal as a way to keep himself occupied. The story transitions again to the interior of the courtroom. Wendell Bolden takes the stand, and he explains that Bobo informed him of the incident involving Mr. Nesbitt. The courtroom scene is interrupted by one of Steve’s flashbacks in which he is sitting on a stoop on 141st Street. He is joined by James King. James talks about his money problems, and he begins to fantasize about committing a robbery so that he can make ends meet.
The audience is introduced to Steve Harmon, the narrator and protagonist of the story. From the opening sentences, we learn that Steve is vulnerable and afraid. As a minor in an adult prison, Steve is both susceptible to violence and adjusting to his separation from home. Steve is reactive to his circumstance. However, he is unable to express himself due to his fear of abuse and assault.
Steve’s decision to value his physical safety over his emotional health references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory that attempts to explain human behavior based on needs. It is most often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Needs in the lower parts of the hierarchy must be fulfilled before individuals can focus on satiating the higher needs. From the bottom up, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
While living at home with his family, Steve’s physical safety was never threatened. As a result, Steve was able to explore his emotions and develop creatively. When Steve’s environment changes abruptly, he must readjust how he fulfills his needs. Although Steve desires love and belonging, he is unable to indulge this desire because his physical safety is jeopardized. Steve has a difficult time reconciling how his entire structure of thinking and operating changes once in prison.
Also in the novel’s opening, author Walter Dean Myers introduces the motif of night. Throughout the story, nighttime terrorizes Steve. In literature, nighttime typically symbolizes death, darkness, and loss of faith. Alone in his jail cell at night, Steve must confront his feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Steve’s fear of the night is further developed when he explains his persistent nightmares.
Although Steve is afraid of nighttime, it also gives him a sense of invisibility. In his invisibility, Steve is able to use crying as an emotional release. He finds a sense of comfort in letting his guard down. As the section continues, we learn more about Steve’s background and his impending trial. Steve must grapple with a total loss of control, as he cannot have free agency in prison. In addition, Steve’s entire future is in the hands of strangers. These circumstances magnify his anxiety. Steve is able to cope with his emotions by chronicling his experiences as a screenplay. In this way, art becomes a form of therapy for the protagonist.