Sometimes an image can be enough. A photograph. A burst of light over the lives of those who live in the shadows of human dignity and public attention. There are images that speak more eloquently than others and tell about the darkness of civilization. Those of the photographer Richard Ross, for instance, in his album about the girls and young women jailed in over 250 US juvenile prisons. His journey into the world of childhood on the human periphery, that lasted for more than 8 years, has become a book through the gaze of the electronic eye, Girls in Justice. It collects stories told in first person by the tragic protagonists themselves, along with essays written by scholars and professional social workers.
“Inflexible” images that say more than words collected from the interviewed young women. They scream at us, instead of those young women, pain, anger, loneliness, and the bankruptcy of a society which wants to export democracy in the world, whereas it should go to the school of human rights itself.
Those images try to awaken consciousness and change the American legal system which is uncouth and rude towards the rights of minors. “I try to make people understand that there are human lives at stake. First and foremost I listen to the stories I am told. Those guys deserve to tell their stories,” says Ross.
Listen to silence and silence will speak through his photographs.
K. N. is 15 year old and has a rosary around her neck. She was only 11 when they arrested her for the first time, for having beaten up a schoolmate. “Police came in the classroom and they took me away,” say the girl who should leave this place in four months. Then she adds: “God thinks I could do something better with my life and knows I will”.
The life of a teenager is something better than spend entire days staring at walls, hidden in suffering and fear of premature aging of a soul which has not yet been allowed to bloom. Barbed wire walls the hope of those girls to have a future as free people, as God has created us, as people who have dignity.
“What happened to you?” is the question Ross asks each one of those little more than children in chains, treated as criminals in some cases due to a whim, a childish impetuosity, soon transformed into an offense to be repressed along with their lives.
Numbers are frightening, in a country where one can end up in prison as early as at the age of 8 with sentences that last a lifetime even for non-violent offenses. Death penalty for minors was declared unconstitutional only in 2005. In those detention centers there are also illegal immigrants, orphans and abandoned children. A slap in the face of the civilization “that must be exported”. Almost 100 thousand minors are in prison. The share of girls is growing. In more than 60 percent of the cases, the convicted are adolescents who had tried to run away from home, where the situation was unliveable, not quite a warm home. S.G, 17 years has told Ross: “I ended up in prison, after having bee under house arrest because I left home to go to church”. At the age of 7, she had been abused by an adult who worked as an animator in a place for children.
Many prisons have a para-military organization. “Her hands behind her back, eyes low, waiting in the halls for hours”, relates Ross. “The guards usually comes have a military past and treat children as adults, as soldiers”. Cells, that are too small and narrow, mattresses are too hard, covers are too thin. Everything is exaggerated, for a human being with the dignity of a person, really too much for a child.
There are countless cases of physical, sexual, psychological, and moral abuse and violence suffered by the prisoners at the hands of the prison wardens. “Sexual violence on young girls is a painfully American story ” according to the report on Human Rights Project for Girls with Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and Ms. Foundation for Women. Often, young victims of sexual abuse at home are detained in detention centers where they undergo further violence, that “aggravate in a deep and irreparable way the traumatic experience they had already lived”. Out of fear of reprisal, those girls keep silent. But the percentages the report provides are disturbing: more than 20 percent of the little prisoners may have suffered sexual violence in prison. In certain structures, statistics measure the horror. A 2006 study conducted on a juvenile prison in Oregon showed that 93 percent had been victims of sexual or physical violence. From a 2009 research done in South Carolina emerged equally terrible data: 81 percent reported stories of sexual violence.
US has the largest prison population in the world, followed by China and Russia. Incarceration rates in the United States are four times higher than in China. There are about 2 million and a half prisoners, a quarter of the prisoners in the whole world. The situation is worse where the “service” of the prison is privatized.
Keeping people in prison is a business. The prison industry produces over 20 billion dollars a year. Private facilities have increased by 350 percent in the last fifteen years. Obama himself has stated several times that “the severity of penalties is disproportionate to the entity of the offenses”.
“The judge sentences you to prison. Then prison condemns you to hell”. It is not only a strong phrase from the wonderful and obscure film “Sleepers”, with Robert De Niro and Brad Pitt, directed by Barry Levinson from the autobiographical novel by Lorenzo Calcaterra, the story of four teenagers locked in the male reformatory Wilkinson who undergo real physical torture and irreparable sexual trauma. For many children, and not only, it is dramatic reality.