Sometimes images really do hold more power than words. And in this case, the images are of children locked up in juvenile detention facilities across the country.
University of California at Santa Barbara Professor Richard Ross has spent more than half a decade photographing over 1,000 young people, mostly in their teens, who have been incarcerated for everything from underage drinking to murder.
They are mostly children of color. Some come from abject poverty and broken homes. They have been victims of sexual assault, of battery, of sheer neglect. They might be criminals, but they are also victims of the system, Ross said during an interview with Fusion.
And that’s what the photographs, which are being displayed in exhibits across the country, try to convey.
"Juvenile In Justice is a project to document the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law," Ross writes of the project, "in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them."
The statistics are astounding. The United States locks up children at a higher rate - around 60,500 young people sleep in juvenile detention facilities or other residential programs on an average night - than in any other country in the developed world.
But pelting people with statistics only goes so far. The photographs hit you, and the anecdotes under the images are equally jarring.
One child’s mother tried to murder him and he ended up on the streets with a bad crowd. A photograph of the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center shows mug shots of children scrawled with the word “expired.” They are children who have left the center and been killed by gunshot wounds. The photos make up a “Wall of Shame” intended to scare and shame kids straight.
Ross has allowed nonprofits like the Annie E. Casey Foundation that work toward juvenile justice reform to use his photographs to convey what the system is like to both the public and lawmakers who craft policy on the issue.
The exhibits feature unmatted prints that stand in stark contrast to what Ross calls the “self-indulgent, masturbatory bullshit” that sometimes graces gallery walls.
Ross, who is in his mid-60s and has a bad back, makes it a point to sit on the floor and talk to the children he photographs. Many tell him they are “washed,” as in, society has “washed their hands” of kids like them.
He wants to give the kids a sense of control, some semblance of dignity. For some, it’s a unique chance to be heard, to receive some attention. In return, Ross said, he gets “moments of pure bliss.”
That sense of dignity and a sense that more is possible is exactly what young offenders need more broadly. Missouri, for instance, has a system that lets kids wear their own clothes. California has drastically reduced the number of incarcerated youth without the disastrous consequences some predicted.
Americans, spurred on by the media, Ross said, view the world as a violent one. In reality, he said, “This is the most law-abiding generation in the history of contemporary data.”
Better education programs would improve things, Ross said, as would providing “wrap-around” services to kids when they get out so they are not left floundering. So would eliminating poverty and racism, but he recognizes that’s a tall order.
“It’s a constant battle,” Ross said, “to make people aware of who these kids are.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.