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California Photographer Captures Young Faces of Juvenile Detention

Photographer and University of California, Santa Barbara professor Richard Ross has spent five years documenting juvenile detention facilities throughout the nation. In his own words, Ross explains what he’s seen. This report of part of the NewsHour’s American Graduate series on the U.S. dropout crisis.

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    Next, another in our series on the nation's high school dropout crisis.

    Last night, we profiled Victor Rios, a former-gang-member-turned-college-professor who now mentors at-risk youth.

    Tonight, a story about those not so fortunate.

    Rios' colleague, photographer Richard Ross, has been documenting the lives of people caught up in the juvenile justice system.

    Here, in his own words and images, is what he learned, as part of our American Graduate project.

    RICHARD ROSS, Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara: I'm Richard Ross.

    I'm a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And I have been working on a project with kids in detention, confinement and treatment for the last five years, photographing, interviewing and just participating in lives of kids that are under stress and in some of the most difficult situations of kids on the planet.

    I have visited 30 states, including District of Columbia, Alaska and Hawaii. I have been to over 300 sites. I have interviewed over 1,000 kids and administrators.

    Every kid that I spoke to, I would go into these cells, I would go into their environment, and I would sit on the floor, frequently a concrete cell. I would spend, like, half-an-hour sitting there taking notes, and I would always start with introducing what I was doing and asking them if it was okay if I talked to them.

    I called up my cousin, who's a prosecuting attorney in El Paso, Texas, and asked if I could have access there. And when I asked him, "Do you think that there is a possibility that you will ever be so successful that you'll be out of a job?" his response was, "I will still have a job as long as Texas keeps on making 10-year-olds.

    And that stopped me. That really staggered me, the idea that 10-year-olds and the justice system would be interacting. And when I did a little more investigation, I found out that 10 years old is not really the youngest kids that were involved in the system. The age range I spoke to kids was probably 7 to 24.

    Treatment of kids varies from institution to institution. There's no federal statute about how to treat kids. There really is no guidance, so it's all over the place. Most states have statutes that they have to have at least 6.5 hours of education per day. Many of these kids are dropouts. Many of these kids have ditched school, cut school, but beyond the normal behavior of school.

    They go to school within these institutions. Sometimes, the school is a separate unit. Sometimes, the teacher is brought to them within the day room. Usually, they are state-certified. Many of the population have special-ed needs. It's not always met.

    So the teachers go to the school. They're in there in a literally captive audience for 6.5 hours. And they can't ditch school. Some of these kids, it's the best educational experience possible for them. But a lot of these kids, the problem is the culture of expectation. The word expectation is really key to who they are.

    Their families have limited expectations of who they can be, and they themselves have limited expectations. When you get a teacher that's dedicated to these kids, all of the sudden, they say, I expect something of you. Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to be able to do something.

    And they want to show that they're not stupid. And when you show that there is a measure of their intelligence by a GED or a high school diploma or beyond, they can amaze you. It's not often. I would say it's not frequent, but it exists.

    It's a very, very difficult population. And whereas, if you say, I want to take these kids and I want to have retribution, I want to have accountability for what they did, it's understandable. If you're a parent and your child is damaged, if you are somebody that has suffered from pain from a juvenile, it's hard not to want biblical revenge.

    But in these situations, you see these kids, and you understand and you listen to them and you hear the factors that come to play on them so much, you can't help but be somewhat sympathetic.

    I went down to an institution in L.A. which was 84 girls, females. I asked the director a very naive question. I said, how many — what percentage of the girls have been abused? And he seemed startled by the question. And he said, what percentage? All of them — 100 percent had been abused.

    And to me, that was striking. So, when kids do things society considers wrong, how much do you hold them accountable? You can't give them a total pass, but when you stop their education, you're stopping any chance of giving them any better future.


    American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    You can join a live chat online tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. Eastern with Richard Ross and Victor Rios, the college professor and one-time gang member. Find the details on our home page.

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