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This place was not meant for children.
This is the world of young felons, of kids gone astray, of children who cry for their mothers from behind bars. Some have skipped class too much, some have murdered in cold blood. At least half of the kids have been incarcerated before. And, if society's attempts at rehabilitation ultimately fail—or if the parent can't or simply won't do anything to turn around years of neglect and abuse—just a few more visits to juvenile detention will harden some of these kids into full-fledged adult criminals. What many Americans don't realize, however, is that these children are starved for attention, wanting to be understood and needing, urgently, to tell their stories.
Throughout the country, state governments have created structures, ostensibly to protect young offenders, that are predicated on anonymity and silence. How we treat our most at-risk kids is perhaps the best-kept secret in the United States today. The community of Laredo, Texas, however, is determined to let others learn from its experience. Parents, probation officers, and youth welcomed photojournalist Steve Liss into their homes and into their detention cells. For two years, Liss, a 20-year award-winning photographer with Time magazine, chronicled Webb County's juvenile system. By building networks of trust, he was given unprecedented access to the detention facility where he photographed daily life and recorded lengthy first-person accounts of juveniles who have been pushed to the fringes of society.
More prisons, less rehab
This story is unfolding everywhere in the United States, from the heartland to the borders. For more than a century, the mission of the nation's juvenile justice system was to rehabilitate troubled youth and give them a chance to get their lives on track. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a short-lived increase in juvenile crime caused a dramatic transformation of the system. Public opinion polls showed increased support for locking up young offenders, and state legislatures responded. Since 1992, the juvenile justice systems in 47 states and the District of Columbia have embraced incarceration and detention instead of treatment and prevention.
Meanwhile, funding for rehabilitation became harder and harder to come by. "Even when the money was there, there wasn't a natural tendency to invest in rehabilitative programs," says Richard Raymond, a Texas state representative for the Laredo area. "It's still not a priority, even though studies have shown that the rate of recidivism drops dramatically if you have rehabilitation services." For instance, between 2001 and 2003, the Texas legislature eliminated almost all mental-health benefits from the Children's Health Insurance Program for juveniles who have passed through local probation programs. Moreover, there has been a fundamental disconnect between policy and reality: Although the arrest rate for violent juvenile offenses declined by 33 percent since 1993, the number of children incarcerated for lesser crimes increased. In too many communities throughout the United States, this trend continues today.
Seeking help, sent to cells
Of the many troubling facts about juvenile detention, perhaps the most disturbing is that many children should not be there at all. How many of our young "criminals" are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. Many of these children are substance abusers, and, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of them have some form of diagnosable mental illness. But juvenile detention was never designed to meet the treatment needs of kids with psychological and drug problems. While in detention, these troubled children receive minimal services, at best, and the effects of incarceration can be devastating. "If a child has been neglected, the last thing you want to do is put him in a cell," says Homero Sanchez, a Laredo psychiatrist who treats young patients. "It's like putting him in a closet." Kids under 12 or 13 years old are especially vulnerable. In fact, children as young as 10 are incarcerated in detention facilities, however inappropriate a jail setting may be for kids of that age.
Behind barbed wire, breeding criminals
Behind the barbed-wire fence of the Webb County Juvenile Detention Center, the world loses its shape and takes on the contours of cinder-block cells with steel beds bolted to the floor. The only color is the bright orange of the uniforms that are several sizes too big for the youngest guests, some of whom are only 10 years old. Regardless of age, the system does not discriminate: Children who have shoplifted, graffitied a wall, or run away from home sit next to kids who have shot and stabbed people. Others wriggle on the floor in restraints in the next cell, screaming as they experience the symptoms of drug withdrawal in the emptiness of a jail cell.
Detain, detain, detain
The trauma of incarceration is cause for concern for anyone interested in the well-being of young children, yet the emphasis on locking kids up seems to be based on the belief that children can be scared stiff into behaving before they even go to trial. "When I come here on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, my goal is detention, whether it's a first-timer or someone who has been here a couple of times," says Madeline Lopez, an assistant county attorney who prosecutes juvenile offenders in Webb County. "I want every kid here detained because I strongly believe that by being in here, by mixing with the kind of people that you're going to mix with back there, they'll see some type of consequence to their actions. I'd rather that they mix with those people." But that approach often backfires. Instead of learning about the consequences of their actions, first offenders try to emulate the more experienced delinquents they meet in detention. "All of a sudden you have the first-timers being trained by multiple offenders," says Adam Rodriguez, a Webb County probation officer. "Ten days later you release this kid and you've got a little monster, because he's learned how to pack a .45, how to do a drive-by and be able to abscond from the police."
Politicians have found a popular platform in initiatives that are "tough" on kids and crime. When George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas, he promised "zero tolerance" and pushed through a series of laws that transformed the structure and tone of the state's juvenile justice system. In 1996, the Texas Juvenile Justice Code was rewritten to explicitly "promote the concept of punishment for criminal acts." The law introduced an inflexible series of mandatory punishments for every type of behavior problem, from running away from home to armed assault. Probation officers—and even judges—have little discretion. "A lot of the behavior that we ourselves used to do as kids has now been criminalized," says one probation officer. "Kids are going to get in fights. Kids are going to break things." The key fact overlooked by prosecutors and politicians who advocate zero-tolerance policies, however, is that children may act like adults, but they still think like children. They don't respond to punishment the same way that adults do, which means that placing a child in a locked-up facility often has unintended consequences. Instead of learning to avoid future misbehavior, first offenders try to emulate the more experienced delinquents they meet in detention.
One mistake—and labeled for life
The process leaves its stigma. "Once a child's been here, he's labeled and people start making all kinds of assumptions," says Pat Campos, director of case management at the Webb County facility. After a few appearances in Juvenile, even the child begins to understand that, in the eyes of others, he is little more than a criminal. "You need to be very careful what you tell children because you don't realize how powerful your words are. If you tell a kid something that hurts him, he'll never forget that," she adds. Meanwhile, destructive emotions fester. "A lot of these kids are just angry," says probation officer Rodriguez. "Angry because there's been no attention, no love, no nourishing."
A call to action
"And yet, beneath their despair and anger, these young offenders are just children, many of them intelligent and likable," says photographer Liss, after spending hundreds of hours with the subjects of this book. By giving a human face to the statistics on juvenile crime, Liss hopes that his pictures will challenge everyone to see these children not as a social ill, but as a social responsibility. Reversing the trend of criminalizing youth requires visionary thinking and community-wide collaboration. Schools and churches need to educate and support parents in the complicated business of raising children. Educators need to face up to the growing problems of drug use and mental illness; they need to address these issues while they can still make a difference—in elementary schools—before children's emotional problems escalate into misbehavior or violence. Communities need to provide halfway houses and counseling for runaways, while agencies need to overcome internal squabbles and work together to create a continuum of rehabilitative care. State judicial systems need to recognize differences in the ages and needs of children. And elected officials need to make financial commitments where they count. We need to stop being afraid of our children and begin saving them.
We've failed these kids
"They needed help," says Campos, the case management director, in a moment of candid reflection, "and somewhere along the line we failed these kids. We failed to educate them, we failed to educate their parents, we failed to provide for them. And all of us have to pay in the end."
Children deserve better.
"Here are our fellow human beings—young Americans who have already, alas, lived hard and mean lives, yet who aspire to know more about themselves and others, and who well deserve the careful, respectful, thoughtful attention shown them by a talented, resourceful photographer and writer. By bringing them up close to us, Steve Liss helps us know our country better and the various destinies it offers for those who will one day be its working, voting, citizens."
—Robert Coles, James Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University
"A heartbreaking and harrowing examination of a subject that has been largely veiled in secrecy. Steve Liss's photographs give us an intimate glimpse into the pain and confusion of these troubled children and offer disturbing insights into America's juvenile justice system."
—Jim Kelly, Managing Editor, Time magazine
"The photographs in Steve Liss's No Place for Children are startling for their humanity and for their revelations. They'll make you sit up in anger, in despair, and in hope. In thinking about what to do with our children who go astray, this is the place to begin."
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America
"These powerful photographs in No Place for Children illuminate what may well be the darkest and least explainable corner of our society—the tragedy of our juvenile justice system. Children who desperately need an education are assigned a prison cell instead, at far greater cost to the federal, state and local treasures. The neglect they endure behind bars only compounds the likelihood they will commit crimes after their release. Steve Liss has performed an extraordinary service for the nation, if we have enough sense to learn from it."
—Senator Edward M. Kennedy
"We rarely see locked-up children because the laws established to protect their privacy have also kept them shut away from view. Fortunately, photographer Steve Liss gained unprecedented access to this hidden world and brings us face to face with some of the young people we are locking away by the multitudes—104,413 in public and private facilities on any given day in 2001. His powerful photographs present a moving testimony to the humanity of some of America's most deeply troubled and misunderstood youth. And the poignant first-person interviews with children, parents, and probation officers shatter the myths that these children are ruthless predators and that incarceration works."
—from the foreword by Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund