A 12-year-old in his cell at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The window has been boarded up from the outside. The facility is operated by Mississippi Security Police, a private company.
On any given night in the U.S., there are approximately 60,500 youth confined in juvenile correctional facilities or other residential programs. Photographer Richard Ross has spent the past five years criss-crossing the country photographing the architecture, cells, classrooms and inhabitants of these detention sites.
The resulting photo-survey, Juvenile-In-Justice, documents 350 facilities in over 30 states. It’s more than a peek into unseen worlds — it is a call to action and care.
“I grew up in a world where you solve problems, you don’t destroy a population,” says Ross. “To me it is an affront when I see the way some of these kids are dealt with.”
The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.
Ross thinks his images of juvenile lock-ups can, and should, be “ammunition” for the ongoing policy and funding debates between reformers, staff, management and law-makers.
Ross makes use of data visualizations and statistics on his site to engage viewers in the issue, but the images themselves must be compelling. He brings all his photography skills to bear in order to lure the viewer. “These flows of information are great little sound bites but how do you visualize them? How does a person see? All of good advertising seduces you in first and then you can analyze the message,” says Ross.
The pictures are hard to look at, but go take a look at his work anyway, and be hopeful, because it really is changing:
Following repeated abuse scandals in California Youth Authority (CYA) facilities in the ’90s, the Golden State carried out the largest program of decarceration in U.S. history. Reducing its total number of facilities from 11 to 3 and slashing the CYA population by nearly 90 percent, California simultaneously witnessed a precipitous drop in crime committed by under-18s. The AECF identifies this as a common trend.
“States which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than states which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly,” says the report.
“In 2004, it was reported that over one thousand youth had been sexually assaulted by staff in the Texas juvenile justice system,” says Krisberg. “It was the emergence of legislation and scandals simultaneously that had people realizing these systems were unfixable.”