Why I love Hallways by richard ross


“I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” - Willie Sutton


I make images of a certain scale and accessibility because I want them to be shown in the hallways and institutions where the policy makers are.

An extensive exhibition of the work is currently up at American University. All are 24”x37” images mounted to the walls with magnets. Next to recycling, trash, vending machines, couches. It doesn’t matter. It’s where the future policy makers of American are studying. In the Fall the work will be at Georgetown Law. I am a nightmare for facilities management. They have never done this before, but they do buy in after a bit. They are simply not used to the walls being this activated.


A lovely artist friend who will be showing at the American University Museum next year suggested the work should be bigger, have more of a presence, stature. I tried to explain that by doing them larger would make them less accessible to this population. It would commodify the work and make it into an artifact rather than a conduit to tell the story of these people.


Hallways of institutions where we frame the conversation for a new generation.....are where this work has to be.....

Where people need this critical discussion.

Somehow it comes down to the Willie Sutton quote…..

It’s where the money is.

The Prison/Museum Dilemma by richard ross

I am slightly diverting from posting about juveniles in the justice system to ask a parallel question. Where do we learn to treat people who are different from us, as something other or something less?

There is something about the world I am working with now that resonates with the world that I inhabited in my past- the world of natural history seen through glass displays. These worlds have an eerie commonality.


Growing up visiting the world of natural history and ethnological museums, I decided to join the army of elementary school students that press their snot-glazed noses to the glass windows to look at the life-sized depictions of motionless, exoticized, eroticized and voiceless figures.

These figures have an odd similarity to the actual kids I have been visiting in juvenile prisons for a decade.

Who are they?

People of Color.


Time has been suspended for them.They are separated from physical touch.They are isolated from Nature.They are viewed from spaces where the artificial light is controlled outside the display or cell.The environment is extremely confined.Decisions about their placement has been made by others, often from another culture.The subject is from a culture that has been subordinated or abused by the dominant culture.They are often from a position of economic deprivation.They are isolated and not seen unless you enter a formal institution.

A “curator” is defined as a keeper or a caretaker of a cultural institution. How different is this than a judge or even a correctional institution that takes care of a society through isolation?

Children learn and build empathy to peoples they are otherwise not exposed to. If these natural history institutions present people in a manner that is harmful, dated and out of touch with the way we understand people who we live among today, do we do a disservice to these children who are forming the patterns of tolerance and intolerance for the rest of their lives?

What do we do with these displays? Are they the confederate soldiers’ statues of some of our most basic cultural institutions? Do we erase history rather than acknowledge and re-contextualize it? Or is it too damaging to remain as part of life’s curriculum?

"He left" by richard ross

I've been here for over a month. I was on community placement, but paroled out, and ran away. Once I'm done here, I owe County Jail 108 days for running away. I decided to get pregnant with my boyfriend of 7 years, but he left. My mom is disappointed with me, but my parents will take care of the baby. - A., 19


"I blew it" by richard ross

"I've been on probation since I was 12. I've been arrested so many times I can't remember all of them anymore." - N.A. (L), 14

"I've been arrested 65 times. I've been on probation since I was 13. I had three chances and they told more time and I was in -- I blew it." - K.T. (R), 16

"I'll be a new person" by richard ross

When I was younger, my stepdad would abuse me and throw me at my mother, and my mother would choke me until I was about to pass out. My mother is a regular substance abuser and disappears for days at a time and both my parents do drugs -- it is not a good situation at home. When I get there, it will be my first time in South Dakota… so technically I will be a new person there. - C., 13

"I experienced things that no kid should ever have to go through" by richard ross

I immigrated when I was 6 years old with my mom, for you know, the same reason every immigrant comes to this country. We see this country as the land of opportunity. We see hope, where we see jobs, we see success, you know the American dream. That’s what we came for. But the reality is, it’s not like that for immigrants. It’s hard as an immigrant to be good at school, you know, because you can’t really speak English. And my mom couldn’t help me. I became a bad kid to the school system because I never did my homework. And it’s not that I didn’t want to do it I just couldn’t do it. I felt like I was dumb, stupid, and I was always trying to find some type of membership somewhere. Some type of community.

I had three uncles that were living with me and they were all drug dealers for the Cartel. They never encouraged me to do that but I saw it. I saw drugs in my house, I saw gang members on my block, and it was normal to me to see violence. Ever since I joined that gang, everything went downhill in my life. I seen and experienced things that no kid should ever have to go through at 13 and 14.

Ever since I got out I’ve committed myself to being an activist, an organizer, and to keep fighting to change policies that are not working. Because even though I was one of those fortunate individuals who did not get a life sentence, I left a lot of people behind. I left a lot of young kids who need someone to be representing them. - Kent, 24 

"I didn't shoot anybody" by richard ross

"They say I shot somebody, but I didn't shoot anybody. I was there, but I didn't shoot anyone. I was reaching for the guys chain and they said my hand was a gun on the camera." - F.N., 15 He is awaiting trial on charges for attempted murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy for armed robbery. He was charged when he was 14.

Today is the one-year anniversary by richard ross

“Today is the one-year anniversary of me being here, in this cell. I like to read. I learned how to read in here. My favorite books are Dr. Seuss. My dad had diabetes and he lost his leg. Then something came loose and he died. My sister has diabetes too and my older brother is Down’s syndrome and was trached (tracheotomy.) We moved from Florida but we weren’t able to get the help and medications we needed for everybody.”

The director of this institution explains that the other 15 kids in the unit have intuitively become aware of his special needs and don’t taunt him, rather they help him.

The director is a retired school-teacher. Detention is often viewed as deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. We often lean too much on the punishment side. This is an unusual site where the focus is on nurturing. The tone is set by the director. Many sites have directors that come from Adult corrections or are ex-police and military. The director also explains they are trying to boost moral of the staff and recently have raised the base salary from $8.25/hour to $10/hour and given the staff new badges.

The day his father died, N.P. ran away with his older brother who had a gun. He was apprehended and detained.

“I had a whole lotta anger built up in me. A whole lot. And we had to get counseling for that and stuff. A person come see us at the house and take us out and stuff like that. But to me it ain’t working. The only person could fix this is my daddy.”

-N.P., age 14

Literacy and Resistance to the School-To-Prison Pipeline by richard ross


"Teaching writing to students of high need in an urban school is simultaneously pedagogical, curricular, and political. Students labeled “at-risk” for school failure often have lowered expectations placed upon them from without that impact how they feel within. Compounding this problem of perception is the real issue of heightened surveillance on these students, including the disturbing trend of involving the police when students break the rules of the school; in addition, their own history of juvenile incarceration often exacerbates their school failure. This article addresses these issues in an urban context, as well as provides insight into literacy teaching that assists students in the acquisition of knowledge, literacy, and expression. "

Abstract: Martin, Jennifer L. and Jane A. Beese. "Talking Back at School: Using the Literacy Classroom as a Site for Resistance to the School-To-Prison Pipeline and Recognition of Students Labeled “At-Risk”." Urban Education, vol. 52, no. 10, Dec. 2017, pp. 1204-1232.

Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justice. The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Detention Facility, Multnomah County, Oregon.

Graham v. Florida (revisited) by richard ross

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Terrance Graham beams with his radiant smile and perfect teeth. That’s the memory I hold of visiting him last year. Today, a year later, I think of Terrance on the anniversary of Graham v. Florida—the Supreme Court Ruling that said you cannot sentence kids to die in prison for non-capitol crimes.

Terrence grew up in Jacksonville. In spite of “The Sunshine State” license plate motto, Florida can be brutal. It is a balkanized population of wealthy retirees, sophisticated yet hedonistic tourists, a northern part of the state, which thinks very southern, and a southern portion of the state with somewhat northern values. Amidst this place that is very urban, very rural, very Cuban, very Dominican, very Haitian are pockets of extreme poverty primarily populated by people of color.

Jacksonville—the hub of northeast Florida—has a major locus of poverty: it is here that Terrence lived with his Mother Mary. Mary and her husband would host crack parties on the regular. “I would put down a plate of food and feed the youngest, then it would go up to the next child, then Terrance, then Michael the oldest. If there was anything left on the plate, I would eat it. Yeah, we weren’t the Brady Bunch.”

The geography of poverty within this environment may be useful in understanding why a 17-year old boy was arrested outside a convenience store with three friends. Terrence hit the owner with a small baseball bat as they were fleeing the store with loot in hands. Although no one was knocked unconscious, and no one was killed, a young boy, barely a teen, committed a non-capitol offense and he received a life sentence.

May 17th 2010—(seven years past) The Supreme Court said this practice would stop.

May 21, 2026 is the tentative release date for Terrence who was incarcerated in 2004. After twenty-two years for a mistake he made as a teenager, he will be 41. His incarceration will have cost the State of Florida more than a million dollars.

His last disciplinary report was coincidentally right after I visited a year ago. He was put in the hole for two months where he lost 20 pounds. This is Florida State Prison in Starke.

Relieving Terrance from the hopelessness of life without parole is a first step. Offering rehabilitation, better resources for family, schools, and children to prevent these environments from breeding little more than despair still remains a dream.

Brian Gowdy argued his first Supreme Court case seven years ago and succeeded. Bryan Stevenson made the second big step with Miller v Alabama and juvenile Capitol cases. We have so much farther to go on this road to treat people fairly—to simply treat them as human beings. But take a moment and remember this is the seventh anniversary of Graham v. Florida, an important step toward treating all people, especially children, with a degree of common sense.

-May 23rd, 2017 "I'm just trying to tell somebody, everybody, INMATES LIVES MATTER"

"I pray I live long enough to have kids and grandkids..." by richard ross

Dear Richard 5-16-17

Hello, how are you doing? I pray that this letter finds your family doing well and in the best of health. I received your note and picture today. I enjoy looking at the pictures they look so real! Thank you for checking up on me. It’s always nice to hear from a friend every now and then. I have been OK. Just trying to stay positive through my time of incarceration. I can get out before nine years as long as I stay out of trouble. My earliest release date is 3-2-2025. My lawyer, Bran Gowdy is putting in a motion for me to go back in front of the judge to get resentenced or get a parole date. I will keep you informed on how that turns out for me. I know you are excited about your grandchild=) I pray I live long enough to have kids and grandkids. Well, it was good hearing from you. Take care until pen meets paper again.

Your friend, Terrence Graham

"In the south, it was nothing for a black man robbing a white establishment to get life." by richard ross

“My name is Lee Albert Ansley and I’m sixty-five years old. I’m from Jacksonville Florida. I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve been an addict; I’ve been a fool. I’m here for a parole violation, but I’ve done a total of 38 years.

I was raised by my mom and my big momma-my Grandmomma. There were only two adults in the house. The only time I saw my father was when he came to beat me. My momma would call my daddy when I would do something wrong and I would see him then. Basically that is all I saw of him at a very young age. My mother was fifteen years old when she had me. She already had a son before me—my oldest brother who is a year older than I am. Then she had two more. Three boys and one girl. She was a child with children.

Growing up I lived in a predominantly segregated neighborhood. All my friends were black because I lived in a black neighborhood. The only interaction I had with people outside my neighborhood was school, and it was totally black. Everything was black. The first encounter I had with people of a different origin was a negative experience. Some white guys jumped on me for walking down the street. That was shocking. Other than I was in the segregated south in 1950.

I don’t know when my grandmomma had my momma. She only had two kids, my uncle and my mom. I would assume that she was in her twenties. She came from a large family. Her family was a large family. Her daddy, Mr. Mathis, had about 13 or 14 kids. They were out there in the country and I don’t know exactly how that impacted her relationships with guys—I don’t know too much about my big mommas upbringing.

My mommma had me, my oldest brother, and my younger brother, but she gave him up to go and list with his grandmomma, and so my grandmomma raised him. Then she had my sister, who was baby girl—now that I think of it, my sister had her first kid when she was in high school. There goes that aspect of them being children raising children again.

When I first got charged I was seventeen years old. I was influenced by my peers who said, “Let’s go rob somebody.” I said, “OK.” As simple as that. I got arrested a day after my eighteenth birthday, but all the crimes I committed were when I was 17 years old. All of the crimes were robbery, but on one of the incidents, the guy in the store got shot. He stayed in the hospital for three hours and then released him because it was just a flesh wound. On one of the other charges, although I did not molest her, there was a girl and I looked down her dress. So…there were aggravating factors that resulted in me getting a life sentence.

The night I got arrested, the police officers interrogated me. I didn’t know that juveniles in custody have the right to refrain from talking until they contact our peoples, attorney and all that stuff. Anyways, the guy that I had caught the robbery charge with, said that I was with him during other robberies. They fooled me into saying that yea we did it. I stayed in jailed nine months, then my momma convinced me to plead guilty to the robbery charges. She had gotten a long distance attorney, who years later became known as a “hanging judge” because he was hard on crime in Jacksonville, and he had told her to tell me to plead guilty. Anyway, I listened to my momma, she said, “go ahead and plead guilty. Let’s get out of this fighting…give me some kind of relief.” So I plead guilty for those two robbery charges—they gave me life. I have the documents to prove it.

In the south, it was nothing for a black man robbing a white establishment to get life. As far as I was concerned, I saw a lot of that going on. It was 1969, the judge was white, the prosecutor was white, my attorney was white.

I was eligible for parole, after ten years, and was released in ’79. In 1983 I got 75 years for a robbery, in ’85 I went back to court and got exonerated. In 85’ they reinstated my parole. I caught a new charge and went back in in 1990. I was released again in ’99, and came back in 2001. I’ve been back ever since. “

Everglades Correctional Institution

Date of Receipt: August 1969


"Societies has to give opportunities" by richard ross

“ I’m 40 years old.

I didn’t know what was going on. I was never there at the scene of the crime, but for some particular reason, they used an eyewitness and believed her testimony. I accumulated over 5000 days for good behavior, with the amount of time that I have already served, which is 22 years. Anything that’s available, or anybody wouldn’t give me a chance...

I believe that society has to be forgiving.

Societies has to give opportunities”

Dade Correctional Institution. Florida City, Florida

Date of Receipt: August 1996


"It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison..." by richard ross

"My age is 41. I was charged in 1990. I was fifteen years old when I got charged with murder. I did not have anything around me, any support system, anything to look up to. It is very easy to get into things and not know the consequences to things. At fifteen I did not know the consequences of a murder.

I grew up in Florida city. My mother was a single mother. She was a drug addict (god bless her soul). She had been to prison already something like three times. My grandparents tried to raise me and do things for me that my parents could not do for me. They had already raised their kids, so they were of older age.

I lost so much. I lost my mom. I have never seen my father in my life. I don’t even know what he looks like. Everybody has a story to tell. I lost everything. I lost everybody that I have ever had in my life, except my grandparents. They are 87 years old and they still stick with me. That’s who I have in my life. That’s my support system.

I am way better now than when I came in. I had to grow up in here because of all the violence that takes place in here. It was never easy being a kid and going straight to prison, having never been inside of juvenile facility. I felt like I was sent here to die. I was so young. I didn’t know anything about this other side of life..."

Dade Correctional Institution. Dade, Florida

Date of Receipt: November 1991


"It goes on and on and on until somebody stands up.." by richard ross

"Right now I’m forty-five…

My mom worked all the time and she was unconcerned with me. Then crack epidemic came and blew the doors off of our whole house. My real father wasn’t around and I did not meet him until I was much older. For some reason, I think I was just pissed off because I did not have my biological father there. I wanted him to be there, I wanted to be like everybody else who had their father’s there. I wanted attention and I couldn’t get it, so I started doing things that most kids wouldn’t do. It started with fighting in school and then I graduated to crime. First it was petty crime and then as time went on I progressed.

Being poor, and being around your classmates when you don’t have much, when they have parents, and they have clothes, and they are clean, and they’re this and they’re that, and you don’t have that, you have to resort to the only thing that’s there—and there aint a lot there. When you are young like that, you are limited to what you can and can’t do.

While I’m sitting here my children have suffered years of neglect and they are making some really really poor choices. My daughter has been incarcerated. She was fifteen when she got incarcerated. She’s off of it now, but she went to prison for a violent crime. Actually, she got kids and she got out. They are just babies right now. My grandchildren will probably suffer as well. It’s generational. It goes on and on and on until somebody stands up and stops it.

When you are poor, you can’t afford lawyers or expert witnesses. They tend to trump up charges against you and throw you away. I wrote to every innocence project in the united states, but most of the time what I get is that they are limited in what they can do. Their funds are short. They’ll put you on a waiting list—I’ve been on a waiting list for at least four years. But I aint giving up hope though, by a long shot. I’m not giving up at all. I’ve been fighting all these years and I’m not going to stop. I have to do half of the fifty years, and once I do half, then ill come up for parole. But in 25 years there’s no guarantee that I'll make parole"

Stiles Unit. Beaumont, TX

Date of Receipt: January 1991