Part artist, part teacher, part crusader, Richard Ross has a knack for getting kids to open up at perhaps the lowest points in their lives. “I’m so old and white,” he explained. “I’m such a curiosity.” For the last decade, Ross has traveled the country to photograph and speak with hundreds of young people behind bars, most of them minorities. He’s trying to understand, expose, and help change one of the most disturbing elements of America’s already fractured criminal justice system.
The latest collection of those efforts is Girls in Justice, a book Ross self-published that splices arresting images of lost and forlorn youth with snippets of their personal stories that are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking. The work builds off Ross’s Juvenile in Justice, released three years ago, which has received widespread acclaim and is in the hands of high-powered decision makers and advocates all over the country. Both books are a hit-to-the-heart call to action that humanizes a whole segment of America’s population that’s kept out of sight and out of mind.
Girls in Justice looks specifically at the reason and affects of a growing female population in our detention facilities and, through dozens of powerful photographs accompanied by related statistics, conveys the futility of cold lockdowns without any support or actual rehabilitation. “Institutions are hoarders of bad practices,” explained Ross, a longtime UCSB professor, over eggs at Cajun Kitchen. “We need to come up with places that help these girls, not damage them further.” The images show the girls languishing amid brutalist architecture stripped of hope for a better future.
Though juvenile incarnation rates have decreased overall in recent years, girls are a growing share of the youth detained and committed, Ross said. They’re often thrown inside for status offenses (e.g., drinking, truancy, running away from home) but are then caught in whirlpool of damaging mistreatment committed by fellow inmates and the single-track, punitive approach of juvy hall administrators. Too often, young women in need because of bad families lives or disruptive behavior are detained simply because there’s nowhere else to put them, Ross said. “But once they’re in there, what services can be provided so the problem isn’t just a can kicked down the road?” he asked.
Ross doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but he’s tirelessly toiling to bring attention to the issue and start hard conversations. “We can’t solve problem 100 percent right away but can start moving in the right direction,” he said. In the spectrum of the hundreds of places he’s visited, Ross said Santa Barbara “isn’t the worst, but it’s not the best either.” He complimented the work of Girls Inc., the Boys & Girls Club, and Noah’s Anchorage but wondered why there aren’t more of those programs around and why there isn’t a female equivalent of the Los Prietos Boys Camp. “We can do better,” he said.
Girls, Inc. will host Richard Ross for a book-signing of Girls in Justice on Saturday, February 28, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at 531 E. Ortega Street. For more information, call (805) 963-4757.