Youth Stories

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

I was taught the game. by richard ross

“I been her three months now. This is my second time. My moms an X-ray technician, she visits. My dad’s not in the picture. My girlfriend braided my hair. I’m from BPS. Black Peace Stone. Where’s that? It’s the Jungles. What’s that? The apartments. Where are the apartments? Western LA over near La Salle. I live there with my homies when I’m on the run. My mother lives in Sun Valley. When people ask me where I’m from and I’m pissed off, the words that I spit out are BPS. People know BPS. I came here when I was 14. I was going through things. My best friend was shot in front of me. I’ve been shot at. I’m a Blood. I pimp girls. I was taught the game. It's a way of life; it's a way of getting money. I really never went to school. I always ditched. Yea I’m 16, but instead of going to school I would pick up my hoes. They’re all 23, 25. Age isn’t a problem. It’s how you carry yourself. You gotta know the game. You gotta have that mind.

I came here when I was 14. I was going through things. My best friend was shot in front of me. I’ve been shot at.

Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall, 16350 Filbert St, Sylmar, CA 91342

Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall, 16350 Filbert St, Sylmar, CA 91342

I may be 16, but I dress like a guy and I act like a guy. I shoot steroids to make myself buff. I been gay since I been here. I don't do drugs. I only smoke weed and shoot steroids. Being gay? When it’s guy on guy you get judged a lot more. When it’s girl with girl nobody really cares. While I’m in here, I still make bank. I keep control over my whores. They get nothing from me. Yea they get a little present here and there, once in a while I give em a compliment. My mom got pissed ‘cause she didn't know where all the money was coming from. I work with BPS and we all don't come together unless everybody needs a big solution, when there are enemies in the hood. But kids are gang members when they’re five years old. You’ll hear em say, “I’m Hoover.” That's a crip. The Jungle is over by Crenshaw mall, but Crenshaw mall is enemy territory. I went to school in Tajunga, but there are a whole bunch of Naps there. Naps are the enemy. Yea I read the bible, but I’m no holy roller spirit. But I read it. After this I’ll go to camp for six months.”

-U.N., age 16

**Interviews with youth are recorded to the best of our ability. All personal histories and anecdotes are self-reported by the children. To protect confidentiality of the youth, identities have been obscured, initials have been changed, and identifying details have been removed. Interviews have not been edited for content.

"Now the center is my home." by richard ross

I've been here for 3 months and I'll be here for another 3 months. They say I have some anger problems like yelling and destroying stuff. I grew up close to the Canadian border. I flunked out of the state hospital and all the other facilities in the area. I was 13 when my parents lost parental rights, so now the center is my home. I have ten brothers and one sister—she's the only sibling I see anymore.

—G., age 15


"There isn't a sober person in the family." by richard ross

We have the same mother. Haven't seen dad since I was three, when he died drinking. I'm in here for drugs, pills, weed, and some harder stuff. I've been at this facility for 11 months. I went through the Drugs and Alcohol Program, but I got drunk the same day I finished. —T.P., age 17

I'm in the 9th grade, I flunked out of my first school. We grew up on the reservation. Everywhere on the res, you can find alcohol, pills, meth—the men drink and the women do pills. There isn't a sober person in the family.

—I.P., age 15



"They put me on adult probation at 13." by richard ross

I first came here at 13. My first charge was having a knife and drugs. The drugs? Weed. I was here for a week—was the worst place I ever want to be...locked up. I came back a couple of months later. More weed charges. They put me on adult probation at 13. This went on and on. They call this “sanction house,” where a judge outs you if you keep on misbehaving. But whatever they call it—a jail is a jail. Same thing. I came back for dropping dirty. Dad asked if they could put me on house arrest. He came from Laos. He came by plane when he was about 19. He welds and works side jobs at car lots. I never visited Laos. One day I would like to. I don’t know much about my stepmom. My real mom lives in another state. My brother lives with her. He gets in trouble on and off. I was going to school until about seventh grade, then I started bringing weed around and by eighth grade I was gang-banging. I’m a member of the Piru Bloods. There are about 15 of us. The other gangs are just fake. I’m also with the FL. We go against the F-13.

I met different people and they disliked me for the colors I was showing. I guess I got in trouble when I started looking for respect. It was eighth grade when I got a gun. A shotgun costs $50. A handgun: about $150. You have to be careful and make sure a gun isn’t dirty or has a body on it. I’m charged with murder. It happened in my house when I was on house arrest. I was with a friend who did it. The older guy started to come at me. He was Mexican and had a knife. He dropped the knife when he was coming at us and my friend picked it up and stabbed him. He is in County Adult charged with “overkill”. That's when you keep on shooting somebody after they are dead…or in this case he was coming at me with a knife so I threw a rock. Then we started beating him and I tried to get him to drop the knife. I was on drugs and blacked out. I started drinking alcohol and was taking Xanax.

I’ve been in here a year. I been in 20 different rooms here. They keep moving me. I went to a waiver hearing and they are talking about me pleading guilty and getting 3-7 years in juvie, then parole for five years, with 25-to-life back up. Possible time if violating parole. I go to court in 16 days to plead guilty. I would be there until I am 23. I heard it was better than this. Better food, better programs and people that don’t act like little kids. I read a lot here. James Patterson—I like him and mysteries and stuff.

—T.Q., age 17



"I'm not allowed out." by richard ross

I'm in a segregation cell. I've been here for one and a half months, out of a 6-month sentence. I came to visit my grandma here in town in the summer but I got in trouble. My parents live in different states. I've been in detention in other states three times now. I'm here for credit card theft, but I'm in segregation because they said I threatened intimidation against the staff. My mattress stays in the hall during the day, I can only bring it in at night. Staff might say I'm out for at least one hour a day, sometimes two hours. But I'm not allowed out. Only to use the bathroom.

—J., age 16



"I am always asking, 'Where is my dad?'" by richard ross

I got in trouble here. Criminal damage, destruction of property. I kicked down a door in my mom’s house. She took all my electronics. I wanted to be on Facebook. I broke into my room to get my laptop. They originally took it away from me because I was suspended from school. I got in a fight with a girl at school. I've known her since kindergarten. She was talking a lot of smack. Calling me a bitch, a whore. She told me my boyfriend was cheating on me with her. My boyfriend is 17. We are having sex, but nobody is going to find out. My mom called the police. I was out on a probation violation and I failed a UA. I ran again to be with my homeboys. Doing some weed and pills. I would be labeled as gang affiliated with Southside. I get A’s and B’s in school. I live with my mom and stepdad. My stepdad works at a factory making trash cans with lids on them. I don’t know my real dad. Mom is a R.N. at a hospital. I don’t know my dad’s real name. He lied to my mom about everything, including his name and left. My stepdad visited me once. My grandparents, uncles, aunt, and mom visit. I was placed in JJA custody.

I am leaving Sunday to go to a group home. I’ve never been to a group home, but I hear stuff goes on there. Too many fights. I don’t want to get any more charges. I had a PV, flunked a UA, and they put out a warrant for running and not going home. I ran to another state and hung with some homies I know. I was always treated good…but I have anger in me. My friends have dads and I am always asking “Where is my dad?”

—S.Q., age 16



"Mom does the best she can." by richard ross

I’m from the East Side. I have two sisters, 12 and six. I think they probably took over my room. I was 15 on my first visit here. I was picked up three days ago on a warrant for not appearing in court. I got out of camp and didn’t check in with my PO (probation officer) for eight months. I just wanted to be done with probation and all that shit. I was chilling with my homie and the cops stopped us for open containers and they ran my ID and found me with an open warrant. They would describe me as gang affiliated. I been here a bunch. Maybe 25 times. Mostly violations, and little misdemeanors. They always portray gang members as a negative thing, but there are different levels. Some people just like to hang with their homies rather than hard core banging. If you are identified as a gang member they finger print you, take your DNA. They make you sign a document that you are affiliated. They showed it to my mom and told her what it was about but she didn’t understand it. I have minor charges “hanging” over me. These are forgotten if you don’t stray as an adult, but if you do, they make those charges a part of your history and you have to answer for them as an adult. I didn’t really go to school on the outs. I think I am supposed to be in 12th grade. I go to court tomorrow.

"I been here a bunch. Maybe 25 times. Mostly violations, and little misdemeanors."

My mom visits me. She’s a box checker in the strawberry fields. She has her resident papers and has been here 18 years. My dad passed away when I was 5. He was DUI and went off a cliff. I was in AS (administrative segregation) for a week one time. I try to stay straight here. I was never in foster care. I had lots of issues when I was young. There was no dad in my house and there was a lot of domestic violence. There were always men beating on my mom and myself. Her ex-husband was violent. I think it was because I wasn’t his real biological son. My mom filed a restraining order against him. He was arrested and kicked out of the country.

Mom does the best she can. She works in the strawberry fields Monday through Saturday. When the girls are in school sometimes my aunt helps out. She lives with us. I will tell the judge, “you gave me a lot of chances but I blew most of them.” I was a skater when I was 13/14 but they don’t have space in this town for those kids.

—J., age 18



"I don't have a dad. He’s locked up." by richard ross

I like to swim a lot, but they only give us 3 minutes to shower. I’m 15 now. I was 13 when I first came here. I live with my mom and grandmother. Not my stepdad. He split with my mom—she kicked him out because he was doing drugs and giving me drugs. Just bud and beer. I don't have a dad. He’s locked up. He wants to know about me but I don't care about him. I’m here because of drugs and because I’m a runner. I run from placement. The first time I was in placement it was for 7 days. I was 14. It was a group home with 4 girls. The judge put me there. Before that I was in juvie. I was 13. Then I was in placement for 4 days. I was 14 years old. And this was after change of faces. I was at a place after that for 20 hours. I’ve been here 18 times previously. I just don't want to be in placement. The judge doesn't want me at home. He gave me a lot of chances. I was on EM (electronic monitoring) at least 5 times, I would just cut it off. I would get arrested, then maybe get out and go to my grandmas house, and then somewhere else. And then I’d be back home within 72 hours, but they would still charge me for running.

My mom would call the cops on me. I would be all high on meth. I tried to stab my mom, but that wasn't me. It was the meth. My stepdad tried giving me meth when I was younger, but I liked the beer and the bud. There was no sexual abuse, but there was verbal abuse when my mom would party with her homegirls. They would get drunk and they would verbally abuse me when they partied. There would be drinking and cigarettes, no hard drugs. One time I got crazy with them because they went into my room and got my blankets and stuff and I started hitting them. They would talk shit to me but I wanted them to respect my shit. It’s my house and my property.

The dot on my arm? That's where I got a TB test and the nurse gave me a shot. I smoke meth, I tweak, sometimes I’m twisty. I smoke it. I usually didn't go to school. I would go for 2 or 3 days when I was 10. But once I tried meth I stopped going to school. The first time I tried meth I was 13 at a party. We would smoke at parties, we would smoke at my house, but I could stop. I don't need anybody to help me. I could stop because I overdosed in a restroom about two weeks ago. I was throwing up and I knew I was close to death. But I stopped for two weeks, and I been here for a week. So that's 3 weeks. So you see I could stop any time I want. But I have a taste for it, when I think about it I have a taste for it. But then I think I was going to die, and I was so scared… I was this close. So I think I can stop.

I go to court in 5 days. The judge wants me to go to placement. He wants me to do what he wants me to do. He’s not my mom. He’s not my dad. Why would I listen to him? I listen to my mom sometimes because she wants me to be safe. But then other times I don't listen to her because I just want the drug.

—O., age 15