16 year old boy in King County Juvenile Detention Center, Seattle.

With a stack of cash and a full paid year of leave what choices would a photographer make?

Richard Ross decided to use his award-winning photography skills and decades of access-negotiating experience to visit and document America’s juvenile detention facilities. Now, by giving his images away for free, he’s passing on his good fortune and helping decision-makers build better policy.

Thanks to a years sabbatical from the University of California and the award of a Guggenheim fellowship, Ross was freed of time and money pressures and over a five-year period, visit more than 350 facilities in 30+ states and interviewed approximately 1,000 children. He hopes Juvenile-In-Justice will change the national debate.

Ross has partnered with the Anne E. Casey Foundation, but it’s not an exclusive relationship; he is open and willing to share his archive with any group working to improve transparency in the system and improve the confinement conditions for our nations incarcerated youth.

In our interview, Ross talks about some of the differences in management he observed across counties and states; describes the trauma experienced by many detained children; explains that sometimes the simplest solutions are best; and expounds on how we are quick to give-up on children who have – for the most part – not seen any benefits of our perceived social contract.

LISTEN TO OUR CONVERSATION ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE.

Visit the dedicated website Juvenile-In-Justice for regular updates and transcribed interviews with many of the children in Ross’ photographs.

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Downey, California.

Giddings State School, Giddings, TX. Maximum security. Pictured: hallway of isolation cells, essentially maximum security within maximum security.

Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), New Orleans, Louisiana. The air-conditioning was not working when Ross visited and there was a fight the previous night. As a result T.V., cards and dominoes privilege have been taken away. The OPP, managed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, houses about 23 juvenile boys. They live two to each cell. The cells at their narrowest measure 6-feet in width.

Orientation Training Phase (OTP), part of Youth Offender System (YOS) Facility in Pueblo, Colorado. OTP performs intake and assessment of convicted children. OTP operates like a boot camp. All of the children at OTP have juvenile sentences with adult sentences hanging, meaning that if they fail in the eyes of the authority they will have to serve their adult sentence. For example, a child could be there serving a two year juvenile sentence with 15 years hanging.

A twelve-year old in his cell where the window has been boarded up from the outside, at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The facility is operated by Mississippi Security Police, a private company. In 1982, a fire killed 27 prisoners. There is currently a lawsuit against the authorities which forced them to reduce their population. They must now maintain an 8:1 inmate to staff ratio.

Dorm room six of the Hale Ho’omalu Juvenile Hall in Honolulu, Hawaii. Built in the 1950s, the facility was under federal indictment until a replacement facility could be constructed and occupied in early 2010. This boy who has been in and out of foster care all his life, has been here at Hale Ho’omalu for one week. He committed residential burglary in 7th grade and has since repeatedly violated with petty actions like missing meetings or truancy. His father was deported to the Philippines and his mother is a drug-user. The only person who visits him is his YMCA drug counselor.


The Caldwell Southwest Idaho Juvenile Detention Center detains children between the ages of 11-17 years old. When Ross visited, six girls were in detention for the following offenses – two for runaway/curfew violations; lewd and licivious conduct, molestation abuse; controlled substance; trafficking methamphetamine; burglary and marijuana

Under 24-hour observation, this 15 year old boy on the mental health wing of the King County Juvenile Detention Center, Seattle, WA is checked on every 15 minutes.

Restraint chair for self-abusive juveniles at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, WI houses 29 children and is usually always at full capacity. 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.

View of camera monitoring the isolation room at the St. Louis Detention Center, St. Louis, MO. The facility is run by the Department of Youth Services. When Ross visited only 35 of the 137 beds were occupied. The population had decreased significantly because of the embrace of the principles of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the leadership of Judge Edwards.

All images © Richard Ross

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