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A Disturbing Look Inside Juvenile Lock-up

April 12, 2012 | Beth Arky

A new Wired story features the work of photographer Richard Ross, whose project Juvenile-In-Justice exposes the appalling conditions of juvenile detention centers in the United States, where minors are detained at a shocking rate. The photographs, taken by Ross over the last five years in 350 facilities in more than 30 states, should sicken anyone who cares about children and teens. You'll see kids in windowless cement cells, and trays of food being passed through slots in locked doors.

Factor in the fact that many of the children have psychiatric disorders, and you can just see a head-bashing girl giving herself a concussion in the Pepto-Bismol-colored cinder block "time-out room" at the South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana. Another photo features a restraint chair for self-abusive juveniles at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where "the average stay for the emotionally and mentally disturbed juveniles, some of which are self-abusive or suicidal, is eight months. Children must be released at age 18, sometimes with no transition options available to them."

According to the Wired report, the U.S.incarcerates children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. "With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child," the story notes, "the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention." And in its recent report No Place for Kids, the  Annie E. Casey Foundation presents much evidence demonstrating that "incarcerating kids doesn't work: Youth prisons do not reduce future offending, they waste taxpayer dollars, and they frequently expose youth to dangerous and abusive conditions."

Ross interviewed more than 1,000 juveniles, who shared stories of parental abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. Rather than incarceration, "many of these children should be out in the community getting better services and treatment where they stand a chance of rehabilitating and being corrected," Ross says. "From lockdown facilities we're not going to see a change in behavior. Maybe society needs this to gain retribution against kids that they think have gone wild? But for the most part, these are vulnerable kids who come from dysfunctional families. And, for the most part, the crime is a crime of lack of expectation, a crime of a lack of opportunity."

Ross hopes his photos will be powerful "ammunition" in the policy and funding debates regarding juvenile lock-ups. As part of his advocacy campaign, Ross is also offering them free of charge to nonprofit groups working actively to improve conditions within, and laws pertaining to, juvenile detention.

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