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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