In ‘Juvenile In Justice,’ Children Caught in America’s Prison System

Eliza Shapiro talks to Richard Ross, whose ‘Juvenile In Justice’ captures kids stuck in the prison system.

© Richard Ross

A fifth-grader was brought to a concrete cell in a juvenile-detention center in Washoe County, Nev., asked to remove his shoes and belt, and stayed from 10 a.m to 6:30 p.m. waiting for his mother, an undocumented immigrant, to pick him up.

He was there for scuffling with another kid at school that day and he was “scared shitless,” says Richard Ross, a University of California, Santa Barbara photography professor who spent five years interviewing more than 1,000 children in over 300 juvenile detention centers.

It was just one of many scenes Ross witnessed while taking photographs for his new book, Juvenile In Justice, that led him to believe, as he told The Daily Beast, “we have the wrong population in there.”

There are 70,792 children in America’s juvenile jails—a population that the general public is just beginning to pay attention to, Ross says.

The issue has been in the spotlight since the Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found the sentencing of juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole to be cruel and unusual punishment. Now, states from Pennsylvania to Florida are facing political and public pressure as they scramble to adjust local laws.

And some of the country’s youngest alleged criminals—like 13-year-old Cristian Fernandez, who faces life in prison without parole for allegedly killing his 2-year-old half-brother—have garnered support for their cases around the globe. More than 193,000 people have signed a petition against the sentence of life without parole if Fernandez is convicted, and the Support Cristian Fernandez Facebook group has daily updates.

Recent victories for juvenile offenders are largely the result of a “successful public education campaign,” says Ashley Nellis, a research analyst specializing in juvenile justice at The Sentencing Project. “Even five years ago, people didn’t know that juveniles served sentences of life without parole in America.”

The sheer expense of keeping kids behind bars has begun to raise awareness, Ross says, citing the high cost to taxpayers of supporting a child—from food to education—in juvenile jail.

Despite more attention and advocacy, Ross says his time inside hundreds of juvenile facilities has shown him just how broken the system remains. “The majority of kids [in juvenile jail] are victims,” he says. “They don’t wake up one day and decide they’re going to be criminals. A kid might be smoking weed on a Friday night and all of a sudden their life spirals down. Most of the girls have been abused and a healthy number of the boys have been, too.” Ross says many of the children he met suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma.

Conditions vary dramatically across state lines, Ross says, and the most horrifying facilities are most often where you’d least expect them. “Hawaii is a pure shithole,” he says. “The system is based on keeping kids isolated in cells. It’s basically based on Pelican Bay,” he says, referring to the infamous “supermax” California prison that keeps many of its prisoners in solitary confinement.

Florida and Oregon also have particularly bleak centers, Ross says. He remembers one child he met in a Florida facility who said he didn’t have any friends in the center. “‘My only friends are my mother, my public defender, and you,’” the child told Ross. Another prisoner said the color of the walls in the detention center reminded him of the “color of spit.”

Missouri, Ross and Nellis agree, is the national model for juvenile jails. Missouri has centers with “a dorm-like setup,” Ross says. “There’s a carpet on the floor instead of concrete, there are plants, one kid even had a poster of Shania Twain hanging above his bed.” But, Nellis points out, Missouri still sentences minors to life in prison without parole. “If you’re lucky enough to be in the juvenile system, you’ll get the best treatment there is,” she says. But if you’re transferred to the adult system “you’ll get the worst treatment there is.”

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The challenges facing the juvenile prison system pale in comparison to the state of juvenile justice in the United States, Ross says.

The most immediate reforms necessary are “where lives are threatened,” Ross says. The Prison Rape Elimination Act and suicide prevention are among the most important new initiatives, including cutting down on solitary isolation for juveniles and staff training, he adds.

“There are so many parts of the puzzle,” Ross says, “we have to attack it with a consumable effort without being overwhelmed by it.”