Photographer and blogger Richard Ross remembers the day he decided to start documenting the juvenile justice system. It was six years ago while he was on an assignment at a juvenile detention center in El Paso, Texas. He says he asked one of the center employees if, due to rehabilitation efforts, there might be a day when these facilities no longer need to exist. The guard's response: not as long as there are still ten year-olds. Ross says he was flabbergasted by the response, but later learned that in 22 states, detention centers are allowed to hold kids as young as seven years old. He decided that as long as states continued to put away kids, he would tell their stories in order to give them a voice.
Since that day, Richard Ross has traveled to 31 states and 250 juvenile detention facilities, capturing the stories of incarcerated young people and the facilities in which they’re held. He posts his photographs on his blog, Juvenile-in-Justice, and he recently self-published a book by the same. Today, I spoke to Ross by phone about his work.
Q:You spend time speaking to youth, often as young as seven years-old, who have been incarcerated. Are there any individuals you spoke to that really struck you?
A: That’s like asking if one child is a favorite. They’re all fascinating and I always feel privileged to be at my advanced years, to be sitting there having a kid tell me who they are, what they’re about, why they’re there, what their lives are about. What I do is I sit on the floor of the cell so that they are in charge of me, rather than me in charge of them. They’re bored. They’re teenagers. They’re drama kings and queens. And they just like somebody that’s not judging them, but somebody that’s listening to them.
Q:You never show the faces of the young people you speak to. What sort of challenges does this present? Do you ever feel limited by it?
A: Oh no, I feel unlimited. It allows me to universalize the kids. They become everybody’s kids, so it’s a great feeling. It’s also a memorandum of understanding that I’m not allowed to show the identities, so the names are all changed.
Q:Is it difficult to build trust or do they seem ready to talk to someone?
A: Sometimes it’s immediate. Sometimes it will never happen. You get a feeling as to who these kids are and how they’re going to respond to you. But it varies all the time. I spend a long time trying to make sure the kid knows I’m not threatening him or her. I can’t say that it always works. But if I’m willing to spend the time, they’re usually interested in speaking to me.
Q: Many of the young people you talk to are people of color, they’re stuck in these detention centers. Is it difficult to connect at all, you being this white photographer, who kind of can come and go as you please?
A: Everything I do in my life is difficult, nothing is impossible. So, I just spend the time doing it. If I’m honest with them, they’re going to allow me to be there.
Q: You seem to have a fascination with space and the feelings they can evoke in people. How does that carry over in your work with detention centers?
A: I come at this with the vantage point of an architectural photographer so it’s pretty relentless in terms of looking at how people are placed within the space and what the space defines in terms of the authority of people.
The space [in your typical juvenile detention center room] is about 75 square feet, frequently including a toilet ,which is described as a wet cell as opposed to a dry cell. That’s what most of them are. The materials [they use] are always concrete. It’s the cheapest material, and it’s also vandal-proof, and fire-proof.
There are other places that are a little more enlightened, that have somewhat dorm-like atmospheres and common day rooms and kids are treated with a little more respect and humanity. But the majority are lock-down facilities. Sometimes they’ll mix the population of kids that are committed of crimes with kids who aren’t yet adjusted. It’s all over the board because every state and every county has a different system.
Q: What do you think, from an architectural standpoint, these spaces are supposed to say to the kids inside them?
A: These are not places for kids. Teenagers by definition are screw-ups. Their pre-frontal cortex is not developed. They have to be directed into a proper course of behavior, and coaxed into it and help their mind form. They’re not just little adults. They’re a completely different breed. And when you lock a kid in 75-square -foot room, you’re not doing the kid or society any good, because it’s costing too much to society, -- morally, emotionally, educationally, and financially.
Q: How do you see yourself, in terms of your role in this project, and in telling the stories of incarcerated youth and the facilities they’re in?
A: I see myself as somebody that gives a voice to kids that don’t have a voice, from families that don’t have resources, from communities that don’t have power. I am impartial, though I certainly have a vantage point. I try to give them a fair and honest shape. I try to tell their story. I’m trying to have people looking at these [photographs] understand that these are our kids and they have to be treated as if it was my kid, my son, my daughter, my niece, my nephew. And if they screwed up, how would you want them to be treated?
Q: One of the most powerful images, to me, is the “Wall of Shame,” the photo of the wall with young men’s pictures that all have the word, “expired” written across them. Can you talk a bit about that with me? What was your experience finding that, what ran through your mind?
A: I went to Miami-Dade Detention... and they basically sit kids down in front of [this wall of photographs of kids who have been killed] in order to scare them straight and they say, “Look, a lot of the kids who have been released from here are dead. Don’t you be one of these people. You will die here if you don’t change your ways and go the straight and narrow.” It’s hard to describe how you feel when you look at a wall of 48 kids that have all died from gunshot wounds in the last two to three years. You get almost fatigued by the insanity of this country.
I’m using that now as a post with respect to the Connecticut murders. I think that when you have the shooting in Aurora, when you have the shooting in Connecticut, the nation mourns, the president weeps. It’s totally a tragedy. You look at this wall in Miami and you look at places where there are entire communities of African-American or Latino kids and as long as the violence stays contained within there, it’s a steady flow. When the violent erupts in a white, suburban community and it happens at once, everybody goes crazy but they totally disregard this endless bleeding of our country and it’s just not fair.
Q: How do you respond to folks that say that these young people you photograph deserve to be there, that they committed crimes and that’s where they belong?
A: They don’t deserve to be there. They deserve to be held accountable but that doesn’t mean those lives are hopeless. They shouldn’t be thought of as being retributive justice. There can be restorative justice that helps explains to these kids how to function properly. A lot of kids that are in there are victims. I would say the majority of them are victims. So, not only have they done something wrong but they’ve been subject to violence, they’ve been subject to a world full of hate and anger.
Q: Who do you feel responsible to in your work? Is it yourself, the kids, the facilities...?
A: The kids. Period. I’m always very honest. I will tell a judge or an administrator that my goal is to have the camera that shines a light on an institution and helps people understand the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, you get places like Harris County in Houston that invite me in and show me everything possible. Yet you get other places that you think would be much more liberal just saying, “No. We’re not going to let you in because we don’t want to be seen in a bad light.” They’re trying to protect the institution, rather than the kid. And I just don’t buy that.
All photos in story are property of Richard Ross. For more photographs by him, you can visit his blog at Juvenile-in-Justice