Juvenile-In-Justice project a grim picture of traumatized kids in traumatizing system

Some of the 1,000 images that photographer Richard Ross took over the five-year project will appear in a book.


Photographer Richard Ross spent five…count ’em…five years photographing kids in our country’s juvenile justice detention centers. The resulting Juvenile-In-Justice project “includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews,” according to his site. He’s publishing a book (no info on his site about the publication date, however), and organizing a traveling exhibition.

In a PBS News Hour feature on his work, he described how he gained access to these places. He said he regarded “No” as a starting point:

“Each place was a negotiation,” said Ross. “And every place that I’ve been I’ve always returned images to them and said you can use them for anything you want. No charge.”

Wired.com recently posted some of the photos on its site, as did NPRPrison Photography, and, yesterday, TheTakeaway.com, among others.

The photos are so sad, they squeeze your heart. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report “No Place for Kids“, on any day in the U.S., about 90,000 children are in detention or correctional facilities. The cost to lock up these kids is astronomical — $88,000 a year, says the report. In California, notes Ross on his site, the cost is $224,712.

Although education is the gateway to success, it can also be a gateway into the juvenile justice system. A survey of nearly 2,000 juveniles in the Pierce County Juvenile Court system in Washington State showed that 83% had an ACE score of 2 or more, and 34% had an ACE score of 4 or more. (ACE refers to the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study that measured 10 types of childhood trauma, and showed a link between ACE scores and adult onset of chronic disease, incarceration, and mental illness. The higher the ACE score, the higher the risk.) The particularly grim finding in Pierce County was that of those kids who had ACE scores of 4 or more, 85% had been suspended from school, and nearly one-third of those experienced their first suspension between 5 and 9 years old. It’s clear that we’ve created a system that just traumatizes already traumatized kids.

My immediate reaction on looking at Ross’ photos was: We humans are smarter than this. We have the knowledge now to prevent this. Look for a post tomorrow about Lincoln High School, which has changed its approach to kids’ inappropriate behavior from punishing them to helping them, including helping them learn how to control their behavior. And sometime later this month, I’ll post a story about a juvenile justice system that’s taking the same approach.

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