You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Juvenile Detention’ tag.

Young Russian Prisoners. Source.

Last week, TIME’s Lightbox published Michal Chelbin’s portraits from Russian and Ukrainian prisons.

Michal Chelbin‘s work includes adults and juveniles, but there is a strong persuasion in her work to consider youth and beginnings. Much of Chelbin’s past work depicts children who are fighters, gymnasts, miners or contemporary dancers – it as if they’ve been fast-tracked to adult lives of graft, competition and discipline. In that regard, her portraits of imprisoned children continues a theme and I’d argue we are not only presented with the seriousness of their confinement but also glimpse the awareness these children have of their deprivation.

On top of those winning elements (in terms of hooking the viewer) there is the obvious exotic; Chelbin communicates the exotic – and manipulates it too – with clear emphasis on, as Lightbox lists, “tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables, furniture painted in glossy blues and greens […] floral house-dresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.”

Fair enough. But let us not just subscribe to Chelbin’s heavily constructed view. A few months ago a friend sent me a link to the spuriously titled and information-vacant Young Gangstas. I think you’ll agree, the images catch the eye. First, because of their novelty and second because these are self-representations.

People aren’t going to be swayed toward feeling empathy for these posturing “gangstas” as they may for Chelbin’s maudlin subjects and even though Chelbin worked fast on the single days she had access to prisons it doesn’t mean she didn’t work fast to create a myth. In a previous conversation with Prison Photography, she described her approach:

“While I shoot almost all my work in Russia or the Ukraine, I feel that my interest is not social or geographical, but rather a mythological one. I return to these countries because they provide me with the visual contrasts that are the basic set up I am searching for – between old and new, odd and ordinary, as well as fantasy and reality. When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles so that not everything is resolved in the image.”

How different is this to the self-made camera phone photographs? In their naive posturing, and certainly in their tattoos, the young Russian prisoners are pushing their own mythology. One cannot know what the “photographer” holding the mobile phone had in mind, or if any of the subjects would expect their snaps to make it onto the web for a foreign audience.

If riddles are Chelbin’s game, and mystery her currency, maybe she’s found a match in these anonymous camera phone portraits? Forget about the gulf in aesthetic intent and you quickly realise there are as many unanswered questions, as many riddles about the cameras’ presence, and the photographer-subject relationships in the two bodies of work.

It might just be that Chelbin’s serves a much more palatable representation (for Western audiences). And that’s why her images are on a gallery wall right now.

Sergey, imprisoned for violence against women, juvenile prison, Russia © Michal Chelbin

Young Russian Prisoners. Source.

© Michal Chelbin

Young Russian Prisoners. Source.

Referred to as the “Wall of Shame,” the mug shots here serve as a reminder to staff of the kids that have been killed on the street. Miami-Dade Regional Youth Detention Center, Miami, FL. © Richard Ross

These days, I contend that if photographers are to progress with their craft, they must be both excellent image-makers and energetic self-marketers.

I’ve known Richard Ross‘ work for a long time now so the former has never been in any doubt. Having seen the way his project Juvenile-In-Justice has been rolled out, it is clear he’s in full control of the latter too.

Ross has been featured on NPR and The TakeAway. The edit of his work in Harper’s Magazine is a finalist in the News and Documentary Photography category at the National Magazine Awards.

I wrote an article Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention in America, published on last week about Ross’ 5 years of photographing in juvenile detention facilities. (The article was well received and has led to a follow-up piece about the issue. Stay tuned). Ross was also a PPOTR interviewee.

Furthermore, the project will be presented as a traveling exhibition that will premiere at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV in August 2012. A photobook is also in the works with essays from Ira Glass and Bart Lubow.

After 40 years of photographing, one presumes that Ross has contacts and allies to help him “market” Juvenile-In-Justice and get it in front of the maximum number of eyeballs. The distribution of this work has been robust and effective – and it could hold some lessons for younger photographers.

I’m just thinking out loud here. My main purpose of this post was to share this five-minute feature on Ross’ juvenile detention work put together by PBS.

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.


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

Wards tighten two drums over a fire in preparation for a Sweat Lodge Ceremony held each Thursday at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, CA.

In 2005, Berkeley-based photographer and videographer Jan Sturmann documented the young prisoners of the Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility in Chino, California during their Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony.

For over 20 years Jimi Castillo, the prison contracted Native American Spiritual Leader, has presided over ceremonies that serve to awaken more fundamental truths about prayer and consciousness. The space created by Jimi doubles to as an arena to ease tensions, practice equality and resolved gang differences.

“I don’t differentiate between the races,” said Jimi Castillo, . “Anyone from the two-legged tribe is welcome to sweat with us.”

Jimi’s is a mentorship Sturmann admires.

For Sturmann, the issue of incarceration is not about punishment but about how institutions provide opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. Jimi provides a space devoid of the daily stresses of imprisonment. Jan hopes his photographs “can help build empathy” and understanding between populations either side of prison walls.

Sturmann was not just an outside observer. He was invited into the lodge to join the proceedings. He put his cameras down and crawled into the dark. The “transformation” he shared with Jimi and the young prisoners was profound – you can hear his emotion at 16m20secs in the interview.


All Images © Jan Sturmann

An assistant to the Fire Tender brushes coal and ash off the glowing rock before it is placed into the Sweat Lodge. 56 rocks were heated for this ceremony, which Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo conducts each Thursday.

Wards offer each other comfort and support before entering the Sweat Lodge. No blood has ever been spilt in the Sweat Lodge area, and gang rivalries and personal disputes are often resolved during this time.

Fire Tender and ward, Jessy, distributes sacred tobacco to fellow participants, which they will toss onto the fire with a prayer, before entering the Sweat Lodge.

Since 1991, Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo has conducted this ceremony, which is open to all wards, irrespective of race.

Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo welcomes a ward who prays before entering the Sweat Lodge.

At the end of the ceremony wards pull tarps and blankets off the Sweat Lodge, which is made from bent willow saplings.

A beaded medicine bag hangs on a fence as wards shower after the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Each bead is a sewn to the bag with a prayer.

Jimi Castillo in his office in the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.

All Images © Jan Sturmann

Spanish photographer Fernando Moleres has embarked on a singlehanded and single-minded mission to improve the lives of juvenile prisons in Sierra Leone. His interview Visa Pour l’Image: Fernando Moleres’ struggle to help juvenile prisoners in Sierra Leone at the British Journal of Photography is a must read.

Moleres speaks of the incredible difficulty to raise money for his work – not his photography work, but his work to connect these children with their families (many of whom are unaware their children are incarcearated) and also his work to provide bail so as to “prevent the children seeing the walls of a jail in the first place.”

Moleres is clearly disillusioned by the lack of forthcoming support from groups he’d expect to be solid allies. Here’s some choose quotes that are a challenge to politicians and NGOs alike (my bolding):

“[In African prisons] you have more chances of dying in these prisons than anywhere else – you can die of diseases, malnutrition. Also, injustice is more flagrant than anywhere else. There are barely any lawyers, some detainees have spent years in prison without even going in front of a court. There is a deep injustice – deeper than in any other country such as Russia, India, Israel or the United States.”

“People don’t realise the extent of the injustice present in these prisons. They are forgotten by everyone. When I was asking for help to NGOs – the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, etc. – no one, absolutely no one wanted to help me. Of course, I was there on my own initiative; so I didn’t have a project they could study, send to Europe for the green light, which would then be rescinded… There’s so much bureaucracy that in these cases it would just not be possible.”

“I’m the only one paying for all of this. I’m spending my own money. This exhibition, which is travelling around Spain at the moment, has received an award from the NGO Medecins du Monde. During the award ceremony, I asked them if they could help me finance this project. Their answer was no.

“I think it would be easy for an organisation to force Sierra Leone to do something. The United Nations, for example, would be the perfect organisation to do so. Talking about the United Nations, when I was in Sierra Leone, a representative from the organisation came to the prison to visit the detainees. I went with him. He talked with a few dealers, the guards, etc. But when other detainees came to see him to denounce the injustice of the entire system, his answer was: “I’m not here to solve your personal problems.” This man, whose name is Antonio Maria Costa [his official title is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Director-General of the United Nations Office in Vienna], has access to the country’s vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to.

Depressing stuff.

For my more general thoughts on Moleres’ work from Sierra Leone and other photographers who’ve documented juvenile detention in Africa see Fernando Moleres: ‘Merciless Justice’ from January, 2011.

Image source.

Ara Oshagan sat down for an interview with Boy With Grenade to talk about his project Juvies from the California Youth Detention system. Oshagan talks about “access, his process and the state of documentary photography today.” It’s long but parts make good reading.

There is a certain pragmatism in my outlook. I knew I could not have access to these kids outside of the limited access that I had when I went in. So I did not worry about that. I made sure that I was totally ready—physically and mentally—when I did spend time with them, to make the absolute most of that time, to be fully in the “space” with them, to have a clear mind, to connect as much as possible, and hope that this connectivity will translate into good photographs.”

“To make good photographs, I feel, one must create a good process. Photographs can never be an end; they necessarily must be a byproduct of an experience, a process. That connectivity with your subject matter must be present. If you go into a situation with the sole purpose of making “good photographs” you will invariably fail. Or at least, I will.”

Read the full interview.

I’ve written about Oshagan’s Juvies on Prison Photography once previously.

Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles, California 2009.

Richard Ross has pushed live the online component of his latest project Juvenile-In-Justice.

It seems as if this is a natural development from his project Architecture of Authority. For some, it would be quite worrying if Ross had studied oppressive architecture without following up with inquiry into the vulnerable lives within.

American youth is a vogue topic for photographers; Ross’ work (tactically or innocently) should not be excluded from any national narrative about US teenage experience.

Red Cliff Ascent, Enterprise, Utah 2008

Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center, Biloxi, Mississippi 2009.

Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, Ventura, California 2008


“To date, I have photographed Angel’s Flight (L.A.), group homes, foster homes, ICE juvenile holding, Los Prietos Boys Camp, LAPD, SFPD, EL Paso PD, Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, Santa Barbara Juvenile Correctional facility, Sexual Assault Response Team Examination Rooms, interview and exam rooms for sexually abused children, juvenile courtrooms, high schools, Children of the Night (Van Nuys), JHS, Montessori classrooms, Maryvale (a former orphanage), CPS interview rooms, El Paso Juvenile Courtrooms, half-way houses, reform schools, maximum security Giddings, TX, lock-down and nonlock-down shelters, SW Keys, ORR, ICE, DHS, and CBP to name a few. I have primarily focused on kids that are not the “Kids R Us” type of juvenile, but rather minors that become part of a system because they have failed, or their families have failed them, or their society has failed them. Earl Dunlap, the Director of Cooke County Detention Center, welcomed me to his facility with the words: “Welcome to the gates of hell.”

I am trying to get the broadest range of images and texts. I recently photographed a family that has two grown sons, yet took in two separated brothers and two separated sisters in foster care in order to reunite the siblings and start a second family. So there are some positive and quite inspirational portions of my research as well.”

Suicide Practice Dummy, Fairbanks Youth Facility, Fairbanks, Alaska 2010

New Beginnings Juvenile Rehabilitation Facility, Washington D.C. 2009


This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.

– – – – –

Steve Davis. Green Hill, 2000

You already know the work of Steve Davis, you just don’t know it. Prison Photography‘s most popular post was that of pinhole photographs made by the young ladies of Remann Hall, Tacoma. Steve Davis conceived of and led the workshop.

Concurrent to workshops, Steve worked on his own project, Captured Youth (1997 – 2005) turning his lens on the juvenile offenders and institutions within Washington State. Steve’s introduction to the Captured Youth book reads, “What are officially referred to as “schools” are, in fact, youth correctional facilities – jails for juniors. It’s a world kept secret from the general public, but there are no secrets inside. Everyone is watched.”

Steve and I sat down to talk about the circumstances of the workshops and portraits, the involvement of – and benefit to – the teens, the atmosphere in the facilities and how the practice of photography manifests in sites of incarceration.


Prison Photography: Steve, you photographed in four institutions in total?

Steve Davis: Yes, Maple Lane, Green Hill School, Oakridge and Remann Hall.

PP: How did you pick those?

SD: I fell into it years ago. It was fairly unintentional. I was doing PR photography for an [non-profit] organization called The Experimental Gallery that was trying to bring in art teachers on residencies into juvenile facilities. It came up they were interested in maybe having a photography workshop. I said it was something I was interested in.

And, nothing happened for a couple of years, but then I got a phone call and they asked if I’d like to teach the kids photography and double up as a photographer for their publications.

I thought about it and I asked if I could do something different. I wanted to slow the process down and bring in a large 8×10 camera. I just wanted to do portraits; focus on who the kids were without all the trappings, bars, etcetera that go along with images of young offenders.

So, I went in and worked with the kids [within a photographic workshop format] and then organized outside of that to take in the large camera.

Essentially, I was working under the umbrella of The Experimental Gallery, which had a grant, so I could only be there when they said I could be there. And when they were done and the grant was over, I had no more access.

Steve Davis, Remann Hall, 2002


SD: It started in 1997 at Maple Lane, then later the Green Hill School and Remann Hall. Each of those placements was under the direction of Susan Warner and The Experimental Gallery. Susan is now the Director of Education at Tacoma Museum of Glass. Between time, Susan had a job at the Children’s Museum in Seattle and they supported her doing this and she continued through them. And likewise, since she has worked at Tacoma Museum of Glass they have supported her as well. So the name has always been the same.

Lastly, at Oakridge – that was all my own work, with anyone’s sponsorship.

PP: You returned to Oakridge and the project in 2005. Why did you decide to return?

SD: Well, at the time the project didn’t seem resolved. I wanted to do something a little different. Oakridge is a transitional facility so they are not so much under lock and key, they are allowed to wear their own clothes and they have day jobs. That is where they reside just prior to release.

Soon after [Oakridge] I felt like I was getting to the point where I was taking the same picture.

PP: How did you respond to that?

SD: I tried contacting other facilities. I really wanted to get in to Clallam Bay, which is an adult institution but has a juvenile facility. It is really hidden from the public. But none of that panned out.

Overall, my interest with portraits has pretty much been about people who are controlled and lack all sorts of freedoms. I haven’t only focused on prison; I did a lot of work at an institution for the mentally disabled.

Steve Davis, Green Hill School, 2000

PP: What’s the attraction to these types of subjects?

SD: When I got into the work, I fell in with these mini societies with their own economies and their own rules and they’re all over the place. They are thoroughly hidden by intention from the public – who have no interest in examining it.  It doesn’t benefit the public to do that.

I found these places intriguing partly because once you are there in the middle of it, the people you come across, they’re linked together by reasons that are not of their own choice. It’s not the type of community where people have something in common so they create their own economies. They are like dogs in a pound. They might be friends, they might not, but they share common concerns.

I was interested in trying to zero in on these people as individuals with personalities and hopefully open up a lot of questions with the viewer. That s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reach conclusions or force anything down anybody’s throat. I am just trying to acknowledge that this is 20 miles from home.

All these [sites of incarceration] have names that sound like country clubs! You’d never know that Maple Lane was anything but a nice street or golf club. When you drive past, it is a beautiful place, but you won’t see a kid outside. It looks good from the road, but it is not a place you can walk around.

When I did workshops, they’d love it if I walked them over to the fence; they’d never been! Just little things like that were huge thrills to them.

PP: So the youth were always willing participants?

SD: The first residency at Maple Lane was the best organized. The kids were engaged – some were working with painting and music. The goal was to create a mixed media large exhibition that would go into the high schools of King County, and other areas that had a lot of at-risk youth.

So the kids [inmates] would present the information of their own lives. The message was for the exhibition was generally “You don’t want this”. The young prisoners understood that and got behind it.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997


PP: Tell us about your portrait work. How much direction did you give the boys as sitters?

SD: Well, they knew the reason why I was there. And all they knew was that their portraits were to go into a catalog. In all, three catalogs were produced. They knew the photos would be published and shown. Other than that, the motivation from these kids to have their picture taken was overwhelming.

I did go in with a bit of theater. I had a large camera, I had lights and I had an assistant. So they were just begging to get their picture taken. It wasn’t hard at all. Direction was minimal. I’d ask them to turn their head or look into or away from the camera. Because I was shooting 8×10 on a limited budget, I’d take a limited numbers of pictures of each person, maybe 2 or 3, and then they were gone.

PP: The personalities of these kids comes through very strong. Are these images an accurate reflection of the individuals in the group?

SD: Yes, each photograph is one accurate reflection. Many of the sitters look very somber, but in fact they’d be laughing their heads off a lot of the time.

Some of the portraits I feel stronger about than others. There are some portraits I don’t have a particular connection with and there’s other I really love. Kids that really struck a chord with me, part of it was the experience of them sitting with me, knowing their character.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: Can you talk about a few of them?

SD: This guy. The nicest guy in the world. Total white racist. Had as many black friends as white, but he was basically raised to be a white racist. Once you got to know him you fell into that world, his world. He got along with everybody, but if you asked him he would’ve told you what his views were. I shot a lot of him, indoors and outdoors, more complicated environments.

PP: This portrait?

SD: I like that one. I don’t know if it’s the picture or the kid. But out of all the time I was there, he was the only one where the staff said, “He should not be here.” He was a Mexican who got busted for being a drugs mule from Mexico. Apparently, some rivals burnt his house down. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. He was scared and totally out of his element. But over about three months he started playing the role of the tough guy and you saw this transition. He was becoming what he was assumed to be to begin with. Becoming a hard guy – it was sad.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

PP: And this guy?

SD: This was in the psychiatric ward and they were all seriously medicated. This kid here was heavily medicated. He’s got blood on his teeth.

PP: Explain the blood.

SD: He told me he was in a fight the day before and he was walking around like this. Maybe he was continuing to bleed.

PP: Did he always have that look?

SD: Probably not. I didn’t really know this kid. But when I saw him I really wanted to photograph him. I was never demanding, but he was the only one I had to cajole. I said “If you want to make a dent, let me take your picture.” He said okay. That was just his gaze. I really thought his look was gripping. And there was a whole wing of them.

PP: Was it a common attitude among the juveniles, that they knew they were medicated and they knew they didn’t want to present themselves as such to the camera?

SD: He was the only one. I only took two pictures in the psychiatric ward.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: And this young man?

SD: He was the only other one I photographed on this wing and he was fine with it. A couple of years later when I was working at Green Hill, I was showing the staff my work and they recognized him and told me he’d got out and was later murdered on the street. He was involved in a knife fight.

PP: This one may stick with viewers but maybe for the wrong reasons? This is your only image where the sitter comes across as full of attitude, possibly angry?

SD: Yeah, he’s got a smirk. This picture never struck me as much as others, but many people have commented. I just never really connected with the portrait.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

SD: One thing I learnt from putting the work out is that people respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.

But on the other hand, I don’t want to force people into thinking that these portraits should be considered in one particular context. Just, here they are. Portraits are really charged that way.

PP: My wife’s favourite is the kid blowing gum. What was that scenario?

SD: He was the nicest kids. He was overweight. He had a massive pack of bubble gum and it was in Oakridge, so he was on work release during the day. He seemed like a nice kid and so I asked “could you blow a bubble”. He did. I like that picture precisely because he looks as if he doesn’t belong.

Steve Davis, Oakridge, 2005

SD: But more than the portraits, the pinhole photographs from Remann Hall are my favorites.


Please return on Thursday, 23rd July to read Part Two of this Interview.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories