A photography exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art sparks conversation about juvenile justice
Enter Richard Ross’s photography exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art, and you’re immediately confronted by images of children in the criminal justice system: a 10-year-old boy standing alone in a white cider block room, a young woman in prison garb whose forearms are scarred with the words “fuck me,” six boys in yellow prison jumpsuits, their heads recently shaved, staring at the ground as a detention officer addresses them.
In these photographs, the children’s faces are either turned away from the camera or blurred or cropped out, which Ross was required to do for purposes of anonymity. But this absence of clear faces, clear identities, also invites the viewer to imagine themselves in the bleak setting of a juvenile detention facility. To substitute their own children for the covered face of a 16-year-old sitting on the bottom bunk in a prison cell.
And in this way, you are confronted not just by the photographs, but by an immediate, tangible argument: These are not places for children.
It’s an argument easy to draw from the photographs. The settings in these juvenile detention centers are sterile, colorless. The viewer soon realizes there’s literally nothing alive in these places, aside from the kids that live here and the staff that keeps them. There’s rarely any natural light. Rather, the photos are often lit by pale fluorescents. There are no plants, no trees, even in the outdoor recreation areas. But Ross makes the argument even more explicit, coupling the photographs with quotes from the children. These quotes are further snapshots in which the children—and Ross takes great pains to remind us that they are in fact children—candidly recount their offenses, or tell us about their messy home lives, or about drug addiction or mental health diagnoses.
To complete Juvenile in Justice, Ross spent five years visiting over 350 facilities in 28 states, including several in Nevada. Juvenile facilities such as the Jan Evans Center in Washoe County and the euphemistically named Nevada Youth Training Center in Elko appear in his work. In an email interview, Ross described his interactions with the children he photographed as something that both photographer and subject were invested in.
“I found them bored and happy to talk to someone that was interested in who they were,” he said. “I never felt threatened. I would sit on the floor and give these kids control over the situation and respect. They flourish if you give them a willingness to listen to them and a sense of dignity.”
A question to consider in any art that offers a political criticism—particularly one as concrete as Ross’s—is whether the artist is obligated to provide a solution in addition to criticism. Ross answers this question with an unwavering “no.”
“We are not necessarily trained to do that,” he said. “I am not a lawyer, politician, nor economist. My medium is a camera, notebook, website, blog and a conscience.”
Instead, Ross hopes to “convince people that there were issues that were limited in scale and scope that could be addressed, rather than have people be overwhelmed by the overwhelming problem of these kids and our society.”
If one of Ross’s goals in Juvenile in Justice is to promote a public discussion of the use of incarceration in the juvenile criminal justice system, he must certainly see his exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art as a success. The Nevada Museum of Art has used the exhibit as a forum for the issue of juvenile criminal justice reform not only by exhibiting the work, but also by recently holding a panel discussion that included juvenile justice advocates and stakeholders. The discussion, which was held Oct. 5, was led by Rebecca Gasca, who had served as Public Advocate for ACLU of Nevada, Shawn Marsh, the director of the Juvenile and Family Law department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and William Dressel, president of National Judicial College.
There was broad agreement among the three panelists that the juvenile justice system needs to be reformed in a way that steers kids away from jail and into a more treatment-based system. Marsh, for example, acknowledged that there are some juveniles that are so dangerous that they need to be in lockdown detention facilities. However, he stated that this is a very small percentage of the juvenile population that is currently in detention facilities.
“The vast, vast majority of kids that get involved in the system have absolutely no business being in these facilities and it does no good in any way, shape or form,” Marsh said at the panel discussion. “We know that they tend to experience worse outcomes than if they had not been in this facility.” He argued that low risk kids elevate behaviors to the high-risk levels they are seeing around them in these facilities.
The panel also identified several other issues that are brought up in Ross’s exhibit, such as the overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile criminal justice system.
“Youth of color in Washoe County are much more likely to be held [in custody] than their Caucasian counterparts,” Gasca said.
Marsh likewise suggested that race continues to be a problem in the juvenile system, particularly in court diversion programs such as Juvenile Drug Court that allow offenders to enter treatment programs in lieu of incarceration.
“It’s not enough just to divert the white kids,” he said.
Ryan Sullivan, chief deputy of the Juvenile Criminal Law division of the Washoe County Public Defender’s office, seemed to agree with the argument made by both the panel and by Ross himself that incarceration is overused in the juvenile justice system, and that keeping kids in lockdown facilities is in fact often counterproductive.
“The more contact children have with the system, frankly, usually the worse off they are,” Sullivan said during a recent interview at the museum. “To commit more crimes in the future, because it disrupts their home, it disrupts their schooling, it disrupts whatever good ties they had with the community.”
However, Sullivan also noted that the number of children being locked up has actually dropped in Washoe County over the past several years, due in part to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that brings stakeholders in juvenile criminal justice system together to advocate for reform. The change of policy included giving lower level offenders citations and releasing them, rather than bringing them into custody.
“The goal is to get kids out of custody,” Sullivan said. “We have managed to lower the daily population in custody from … 100 to now 35 or 40.”
Ross’s exhibit is a departure from what you might expect to see at a fine arts museum such as the Nevada Museum of Art. It isn’t art for art’s sake. Rather, it’s an exhibit that asks the viewer to confront a world we’d rather not acknowledge. In this collection of photographs and text, Ross demands we enter a conversation about how we choose to deal with kids who commit crimes. And hiding them is no longer an option.