SANTA BARBARA, Calif. | No.
That’s the word photographer and researcher Richard Ross heard often throughout the last five years, as he documented over 300 juvenile detention facilities in 30 states across the United States.
“I always felt like the word ‘no’ was simply a starting point,” said Ross, who is also a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The project started when Ross called up his cousin who is a prosecuting attorney in El Paso, Texas. His cousin was able to get him inside a detention facility there and what he saw compelled him to expand the project as far as he could.
“It stopped me,” Ross said. “What I saw [and was able to photograph] really staggered me.”
After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship and locking down additional funding from a variety of other foundations, Ross said there was no strategy he wouldn’t employ — besides lying — to gain access to facilities in states that included Hawaii, Alaska and Washington, D.C.
“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.”
Ross also interviewed more than 1,000 juveniles in the last five years, ranging in ages from 7 to 24. He said because there is no federal statute, states determine how long an adolescent can legally be considered a juvenile.
Most states do have statutes that require juveniles to have at least 6.5 hours of schooling every day, and Ross said sometimes the instruction they receive within these facilities is the best education possible for them because the teachers are qualified to handle at-risk adolescents.
Many of these kids are dropouts and they have special needs, Ross said. “They go to school within these institutions and sometimes the teachers are brought to them, so they can’t ditch school.”
But Ross feels the problem for many of the juveniles he spoke with lies in what he calls “the culture of expectations.”
“Their families have limited expectations of who they can be and they themselves have limited expectations,” Ross said. “But when you get a teacher that’s dedicated to these kids and they say, ‘ladies and gentlemen I expect something of you,’ they can amaze you.”
Yet Ross conceded that success stories are rare among delinquents. But he said it would be a crime to give up on kids simply because they have had a troubled youth.
“When you stop their education, you’re stopping any chance for them to have a better future,” said Ross.
Ross also recently visited juvenile detention centers in Canada and is planning to document facilities in Mexico as well in the coming months.
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