Photographer Richard Ross has documented the U.S. juvenile justice system for the better part of a decade, producing the books "Juvie Talk" and "Girls in Justice" based on his experiences with incarcerated youth. He believes the kids he meets are proof of how our system has failed — rather than failures themselves. Ross shares his brief but spectacular take on giving them a voice.
Judy Woodruff: Photographer Richard Ross has documented the U.S. juvenile justice system for the better part of a decade.
In tonight's Brief But Spectacular, Ross shares what it feels like to honor the voices of children behind bars.
His books "Juvie Talk" and "Girls in Justice" are available online.
Richard Ross: I went to a juvenile detention center in Texas. And I was used to photographing architecture, but then, all of a sudden, I started talking to a couple of kids there that were very fragile, didn't speak any English. And I realized that I was the conduit for their voice.
When I would go into these institutions, I would knock on the door of the cell, I would take off my shoes, I would ask for permission to come in. And then I would sit on the floor of the cell. I would give that child authority physically above me.
And these were usually teenagers, and they were isolated, bored, lonely. And somebody interested in paying attention to them, they loved it.
These kids all live under the umbrella of trauma, poverty, abuse, neglect. And I'm trying to figure out the world where they get the right resources to help them, and they don't go into the deeper end of the system.
Every one of these children need mental health services. These are kids without a voice from families without resources, from communities without power, and that's got to change somehow.
Getting the images into the hands of the right people to effect change is the battle that I do. The Senate and House was voting to renew the act that kept children in separate courts.
There was an exhibition of my work in the Capitol Rotunda. And then, when the actual vote was taking place, Senators Grassley and Durbin both had copies of my book when they were voting.
I create these images because data, while it's incredibly important, exists in fluorescent sterility, yearning for a fragile voice to make it comprehensible on human terms.
When you have kids from one zip code that are more likely to go to prison than college, then society has failed them, rather than they have failed us.
So, instead of figuring out how to change these kids to fit into our institutions, we have to rearrange our thinking and figure out how our institutions change to fit these kids.
You have seen these images. You have a glimpse of who these kids are. Ask yourself, what would you do if this was your kid?
My name is Richard Ross, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on juvenile injustice in America.
Judy Woodruff: So powerful.
And you can see all episodes in our Brief But Spectacular series on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.