In 1990 or thereabouts I met a guy called Richard Ross (American) in Vienna. He was part of a photographic show that a friend of mine had curated called Reinventing the American Dream. At the time I had no idea that he and I would become great lifelong friends. I had no idea how much I would end up respecting this man – respecting his craft as a photographer, respecting his sharp intelligence, respecting him as a human being and ultimately respecting him for the work he has tirelessly undertaken over the last 5 years.
Because what Ross has done in that time is travel the length and breadth of the United States, photographing and documenting the life of juveniles in “Juuvie”. Juvenile prison. This work builds upon his last project called The Architecture of Authority.
I think its an important piece of work, its a very political piece of work, and it is a very powerful piece of work. Ross annotates one of his photographs, a picture of a boy with a massive head scar that covers the entire side of his head, The scar is from a traumatic brain injury. Many of the youth in the system have been the victims of violence, on the streets and at home, resulting in TBI and PTSD. Scars like this, while not common, are not infrequent.
Ross himself writes on his website,
Juvenile In Justice documents the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. My medium is a conscience.
For the past five years, I have interviewed and photographed both pre-adjudicated and committed youth in the juvenile justice system. To date, I have interviewed and photographed over 1,000 juveniles and administrators at 300+ facilities in 30 states in the U.S. I have made sure to keep the children’s identities unknown, by either photographing them from behind or obscuring their faces.
I have photographed group homes, police departments, youth correctional facilities, juvenile courtrooms, high schools, shelters, Montessori classrooms, CPS interview rooms, and maximum security lock-down and non-lock-down shelters, to name a few. Earl Dunlap, the Director of Cooke County Detention Center, welcomed me to his facility with the words: “Welcome to the gates of hell.”
In the past I have photographed for major magazines, newspapers and institutions. At this phase in my career I am turning my lens towards the juvenile justice system and using what I have learned in 40+ years of photography to create a database of compelling images to instigate policy reform. My products are unbiased photographic and textual evidence of a system that houses more than 100,000 kids every day.
In the US all prisons are privatised – when you run a ‘for profit’ organisation, you need to input raw material to extract value – cash. In this instance the raw materials are juveniles from whose incarceration cash is extracted via the tax payer. So here’s a simple game plan one invests in prisons, and then lobbies to ensure the law accommodates easier sentencing and longer jail terms – because the more raw material one inputs the more value is extracted. Some Senators are in jail today for doing precisely that.
Ross tells me another story of a young boy, who has mental health problems, and is under 14. He shot his father with a gun. Why? Because his father had systematically raped his son since he could remember, then he started on the boys younger sister – so to protect her he shot his father dead. The boy is in Juuvie. As Ross would say, ‘Go figure’.
Gladys Carrión, New York’s reform-minded commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, has been calling on the state to close many of its remote, prison-style juvenile facilities and shift resources and children to therapeutic programs located in their communities. Her efforts have met fierce and predictably self-interested resistance from the unions representing workers in juvenile prisons and their allies in Albany. A recent series of damning reports have underscored the flaws in New York’s juvenile justice system and the urgent need to shut down these facilities.
Not surprisingly, these institutions do a terrible job of rehabilitation. According to a study of children released from custody between 1991 and 1995, 89 percent of the boys and 81 percent of the girls were eventually rearrested. New York’s facilities are so disastrous and inhumane that state officials recently asked the courts to refrain from sending children to them, except in cases in which they presented a clear danger to the public.
We don’t think about the system of prison, or at least very few of us do. But in talking to Ross, and watching him work you can see the unfairness, greed, and a great inhumanity oozing out of every pore of this system. And this work profoundly resonates with me, and with the work I have been doing with No Straight Lines. This for me is an indicator of the fact that we live at the edge of the adaptive range of our industrial society, where we are deconstructing humanity almost to the point of deconstruction.
We must ask ourselves the question, what role does any organisation play in our society? Is it there to serve humanity and society, or is it there to create power? To generate huge revenues for a few at the cost of the many? And we then have to go on and ask and why do we stand for it? Will our conscience stand for it? Is this really the American Dream or is it time to reinvent it?