Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention in America

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. In 1982, a fire killed 27 prisoners and an ensuing lawsuit against the authorities forced them to reduce their population to maintain an 8:1 inmate to staff ratio.
Nevada Youth Training Facility, Elko, NV.

“I photographed intake moments before a director of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Downey, CA, had the juveniles sit in erect and proper on the benches – an unnatural positions. This is one of three major centers of the Los Angeles Juvenile confinement system, collectively the largest in the country. The great majority here is populated by Hispanic and African-American juveniles,” says Ross.

Restraint chair for self-abusive juveniles at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, WI houses 29 children and is usually at full capacity. The average stay for the emotionally and mentally disturbed juveniles, some of which are self-abusive or suicidal, is eight months. Children must be released at age 18, sometimes with no transition options available to them.

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.

Challenge Program, El Paso, TX. “They come in once a day and do a search of my room,” says the 14 Year old girl. “Everything I have in there, EVERYTHING, goes out–including the inside of the mattress and a body search–once a day. It happens anytime. Random. I was arrested for assault against a 13-year-old girl. It’s sort of all right, but it also really sucks. I’m here for Violation of Probation. I was at home with an ankle bracelet. I got mad at my mother and started throwing chairs and cut my ankle bracelet. My Mother works for Rody One industries; my Father lives in Juarez. I just finished starting 8th grade. It’s boring but I like to write poems, and listen to music. One day I might want to work as a Corrections Officer in a prison.”

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.

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.

On top of the cost, in its recent report No Place for Kids, the AECF presents evidence to show that youth incarceration does not reduce recidivism rates, does not benefit public safety and exposes those imprisoned to further abuse and violence.

The stories he heard covered a range of issues, including children running drugs, parental abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. But as difficult as the juveniles’ lives are, Ross is astonished by America’s widespread reliance on incarceration in its attempts to intervene.

Juvenile Detention Centers are  squalid, overcrowded facilities that are infested with insects, and jail officials frequently resort to violence and the inappropriate use of restraints.”

“Toilets and walls are covered with mold, rust and excrement. The place smells of human excrement, and children are forced to sleep on thin, moldy mats. Personal hygiene items are not provided to the children, and juveniles frequently are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, without regular exercise or recreation.

“Staff frequently resort to physical violence and respond to youths’ request for help or assistance with taunts, profanity and indifference.”

More than one in 10 juveniles under the age of 18 are sexually abused while in detention, according to government data.

12 percent of juveniles under the age of 18 fall victim to some forms of sexual abuse while in detention. That’s according to the government’s own numbers.

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  1. Did we at least notice that the numbers have fallen from 105,000 to around 71,000 from 1997 to 2010? Yeah, I’d say that the US’s rate of incarceration of children is steadily declining based on the numbers you posted in this article

      1. They go into the adult system with new crimes, often committed in the juvenile facilities. The ones in the adult system were too dangerous to be handled in the juvenile system. I suspect if all of you spoke to someone who actually worked in that system, you might get a new, less naive perspective. I doubt most of the people who commented here have had any direct contact with the actual reality of these facilities and those who work and live in them. There is very little you can learn from a simple internet article, which teaches nothing but image and perception.

  2. Reblogged this on Whimsically Yours and commented:
    This is ridiculous. Give educators…not the education system, grassroots educators, the money that goes toward keeping each child locked up and you could revolutionize everything. I can only imagine how much we could change the lives of those children then. And by change I mean for the better for them, not for the system. This is just horrifically crazy, these are the conversations we should be having.

  3. Reblogged this on tyeeseeuh and commented:
    Its sad to read about how troubled children in the USA are. There are many factors that are exposing our youth to destructive behavior. Beginning with family ties and ending in nutrition. Our youth isn’t receiving the nurturing discipline they deserve. Often times these kids in juvenile detention come from troubled homes where parental guidance lacks extensively.
    These children are taught from a young age that in order to get attention you must do something drastic. Now 13 years old and treated like a prisoner, where is the hope?

  4. This information this glimpse into reality is invaluable but instead of taking in the horror and meerly “getting it”, there is a call for revolution without compromise. I work in youth correctional facilities as an arts educator in Canada but this is off the charts abuse. Thank you for this post. Keep the dialogue going!

  5. My son is at a correctional facility in Florida, where he is is not so bad, getting there was horrible, he spent two months in “protective custody” as someone jumped him not an hour after he got there from county lockup, his C.O. went on maternity leave thinking that someone would transfer him, when she came back she did not even remember him, I had to remind her that he was in solitary, he ate ok, but lost lots weight, then he was transferred to another holding facility on his way to his final camp and had roaches in his food, roaches in his room, dirty room, no hot water, his and other cells were exposed to harsh weather ( I know florida right? but it has been extremely cold here ) finally after a week went to his final camp, guards for two weeks slapped the kids around, he is just turned 19, is incarcerated with 19 to 24 yr olds, he was never slapped but was stomped in the stomach for having his arms inside his uniform top to stay warm (no a/c or heat) he was laying down on the floor, guard told him that he could laydown but could not have his arms in his shirt. After being moved into the work camp, he had to go through an initiation to show that he would not give up his personal belongings or give up any money, he has been in a total of three fights since he went into the system, some have been sliced in the face with razor blades, locks in socks, bars of soap in socks, but I have to say, no rape has occured where he is, he says that there are too many who will willingly give it up, so no rape. He has two years where he is, right now he has been there for two months, has gained his weight back and is back into working out, not so paranoid as first was when he went in, but watches his back at all times. Gangs want him, but he has made it plain that he will not join any gang. Just wants to do his time and get the heck out and never go back.

  6. Okay, so when I was in juvie I was in for addiction, constant run-away, and self-harm. I did these things because I had abusive parentals. So when I saw something happening to one of the younger inmates, it struck a nerve with me. I intervened a lot, and I got punished for it. This continued until I was let out, though the staff did not seem to care what was going on and that was very irritating. If you ever have a troubled teen, just don’t send them to one of these places. Their bad, and they aren’t helpful at all.

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