For the past six years, UCSB photography professor Richard Ross has been traveling around the country, visiting more than 200 juvenile detention centers in 31 states and documenting their conditions through thousands of photographs and interviews with youths facing injustice within the penal system.
His efforts recently culminated in a book called Juvenile In Justice, which showcases about 150 of these photographs interspersed with narratives describing the experiences of imprisoned children and essays from Ira Glass of This American Life and Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation at UCSB.
The book is part of Ross’ ongoing project that also includes a photography exhibition, a website, a blog and various other types of social media.
The goal, Ross said, is to expose the harsh conditions and injustice that are often characteristic of juvenile detention facilities to as many people as possible in hopes of inspiring reform. The pictures and stories are, above all, designed to elicit a reaction and shed light on a problem that has often been overlooked.
“I’m trying to engage every different level of people — some that are in authority now that can impact change now and also people of (a younger) generation so that (they are) more consciousness of what is going on and why,” Ross said.
“I’m taking it out of the domain that I’m normally used to, and I’m creating a different audience that instead of looking at it and saying ‘Nice’ or ‘Interesting,’ they look at it and say, ‘This is wrong. How can I change it?’”
Ross said the initial inspiration for the project came from a statement made by the director of juvenile detention center he was visiting in Texas.
“I asked the director there if he would be out of a job at any point — if he could be that successful — and he said, ‘not as long as the state of Texas keeps on making 10-year-olds,’” Ross said. “I was amazed by that.”
According to Ross, while the U.S. violent crime arrest rate for juveniles is not significantly higher than many other countries, the United States has about five times as many youth behind bars than the country with the next highest number, South Africa. There are roughly 70,000 young people currently being detained at ages as young as seven, and many have only committed minor offenses, he said.
“I found kids in the wrong situation — about 80 or 85 percent of them don’t belong there,” he said. “Maybe 12 percent of the kids are in there for violent crimes and they may have some real issues, but most of these kids are victims as well as a perpetrator or alleged perpetrators.”
To reform the system, Ross recommends replacing the zero-tolerance policy often used in disciplining children with a “restorative justice”-based approach, in which teachers and authority figures are trained to communicate with children to determine the underlying motivation for their actions and work to fix the problem.
Ross said police involvement has become too common in schools, and discipline is increasingly being transferred out of teachers’ hands. He said police intervention should be a last resort measure rather than a first line of defense.
“I’d like to see people treating these kids with compassion and treating them as redeemable, having some sense of restorative justice,” Ross said. “You throw a kid out of school and you are throwing a life away.”
Ross continually adds to the project and makes a point of traveling at least one week of every month to get new material. He also teaches a class on justice at UCSB with sociology professor Victor Rios, who has also published a book focusing on the juvenile justice system.
Ross’s work will be included in an exhibition called AgiProp (Agigation and Propaganda) that opens later this month at Left Coast Books, 5877 Hollister Ave. in Goleta.
The show runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 10, with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 3. Ross will have a book signing at the store from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 30.