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Raw Reality of Juvenile Justice

Raw Reality of Juvenile Justice

In pursuit of social justice, photojournalist Richard Ross often visits nightmarish places most people avoid at all costs – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Syria and countless adult prisons and juvenile detention centers across the US.

In pursuit of social justice, photojournalist Richard Ross often visits nightmarish places most people avoid at all costs – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Syria and countless adult prisons and juvenile detention centers across the US. Most recently, through an ambitious project called Juvenile In Justice, he has been working to educate the public about the psychological horrors surrounding the growing crisis in the juvenile justice system.

This Saturday, January 18, an exhibition featuring Ross’ poignant portraits of incarcerated youth, along with photographs from his earlier series Architecture of Authority, will open at RISD’s Portfolio Café as part of this month’s MLK 14 events, an annual series on campus celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of the series, the photographer will visit and speak about his work on Monday, January 27.

A fiery professor and researcher based in Santa Barbara, CA, Ross has traveled to 31 states to photograph and interview thousands of adolescent prisoners for his Juvenile In Justice project, which earned the 2012 ASME Award for Best News and Documentary Photography, has been exhibited widely and has been published as a book, with excerpts appearing on NPR, PBS, ProPublica and CBS News, among other media outlets. The young inmates tell heartbreaking stories of poverty, isolation, fear, hopelessness and mind-numbing boredom.

“The conditions [in juvenile prisons] are absolutely horrific,” says the father of two, who is now in his 60s. “In many institutions, inmates are given almost nothing – not even a mattress to sleep on. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they get a Bible. And if they’re not crazy before entering one of those shitholes, they go crazy” – at least while serving out their sentences.

In his photographs, Ross tends to blur inmates’ faces to relay both their anonymity and sense of shame. He also captures the bleakness and raw despair, which come through in the contextual images showing the facilities themselves and in how his subjects lean, slouch and slump. “Most of the population [in youth detention centers] is made up of boys monitored by 24-hour surveillance,” he explains.

In the six years he has been doing this work and interviewing kids, Ross has discovered that most of the inmates don’t feign innocence – though their crimes range in severity. For instance, at the same facility in Reno, NV where a 10-year-old boy was held in an isolation cell after he stabbed a classmate, another boy was detained for stealing a bagel.

Other stories point to political issues. One of Ross’ frames show a 16-year-old mother from a small village in Guatemala who was locked up in a center in Postville, IA after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided a packing plant she was working at and arrested hundreds of illegal aliens. “There were lots of trucks and men with guns and helicopters. They deported most of us but let some stay to go to court,” she tells Ross. “We were all from the same small village... I think they let me stay [in the country] because of my baby.”

Admitting that the nature of his photography continues to take an emotional toll on him, Ross says that he threw himself into advocacy efforts to reform the US prison system once he really realized that it affects a disproportionate number of minorities – people often brought up in impoverished, and therefore powerless, communities. “I wonder about the world we are living in where kids are locked up,” he says. “To paraphrase Doug Nelson, we have not only racialized poverty, but we have now criminalized the results.”

Moreover, Ross believes prison culture is steeped in archaic, Puritanical beliefs ­that perpetuate its pervasive dysfunction. “When something goes wrong, people seek revenge and retribution by putting someone away [in jail]. That’s a very Biblical concept – and I mean that in the worst possible way,” he notes. “People don’t realize that rehabilitation doesn’t happen [in cells]. It’s bullying – and there’s no excuse for it.”

At RISD Ross will also share selected photographs from Architecture of Authority, a series he created several years ago documenting austere authoritarian environments – from the inner sanctums of FBI headquarters to Iraqi government chambers. He’s now continuing work on projects focused in ICE injustices and the particular plight of girls who are imprisoned. He’s also assembling a network of journalists, photographers, educators and activists to help advocate for prison reform legislation.

“I'm from New York, so I’m relentless,” Ross says. “If there’s something to be done, I won’t stop. I’ll continue with this work until we see change.”

Selected portraits from Richard Ross’ Juvenile In Justice and Architecture of Authority series are on view in RISD’s Portfolio Café from January 18 through 27. An opening reception takes place on Saturday, January 18, from 5-8 pm.

–Liisa Silander