Richard Ross is an American photographer who has documented, through narratives and images, what it is like to be “in the system” as a juvenile offender in various locations across the United States. The visuals (which can be found here) are stunning in their austerity and what they say about our treatment of juvenile offenders. Most Americans do not give much thought as to the conditions in which we place wayward children; many probably do not care. However, many of the photographs Ross displays are too shocking to ignore.
The first thing you notice about the shots of the actual facilities are that they look shockingly similar to the modern school building. Harsh overhead lighting is omnipresent. Cinder block walls overwhelm the design scheme. Living conditions range from inadequate to squalid. The narratives from inside the walls echo these reflections, indicating that if we were present when these photographs were taken, our senses would be assaulted by the smell of human excrement, the presence of insects, and children who are not provided with personal hygiene items.
Faces in the photos are always obscured, in keeping with the protection of the children’s “privacy”, but it is apparent that there is little else that these children are protected from. Battered bodies, dejected poses, and striped sweat suits command focus. It is interesting to note that violence is often the first resort in dealing with these unlucky children and it shows, despite their obscured visages. Suffering is a common theme in these photos, both overt and subtle. The image of a repulsive pink isolation cell made my skin crawl. I actually had to do an image search for it to confirm that it was actually a real place in a real facility (shout out to South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility, in South Bend, Indiana for providing such a torturous looking room for our youth).
Predictably, the places in Ross’ photographs are not helping children to transition into thoughtful, balanced young adults. This is evidenced, quite appallingly, by an image from inside the Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention Center of what is called, inexplicably, “the wall of shame.” Mug shots of deceased youth paper the walls, 6 cinderblocks high. I have never seen a photograph that encapsulates how the juvenile justice system fails children quite like this one does.
Some questions for discussion:
How can we promote empathy for children that society tells us are beyond repair? Are these photographs the best way to do so? Why or why not?
You may be familiar with the proverb “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Does this relate to the photos and stories presented by Juvenile In Justice? Why or why not?
How might the juvenile justice system be improved in the United States?
Were you aware, from personal experience or otherwise, of the current state of juvenile facilities, as based on Ross’ photos? Do you think this is an accurate depiction? Why or why not?
How can we relate these images and narratives back to the school-to-prison pipeline? Are they related at all? Why or why not?