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No Place for Children

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 11/16/2005

In the center of an empty four-walled cell stands an aimless 11-year-old. The cuffs of his athletic pants are cut in strips. His straight hair stands up in unintentional spikes echoing his momentary lack of direction. His eyes stare straight at you trying to make a purposeful moment in the abyss of time that he obviously has to kill.

This is one of the images that photographer Steve Liss exhibits alongside Baltimore photographer Marshall Clarke in No Place for Children, part of the Open Society’s Moving Walls series addressing social-justice issues. Both photographers capture the terror of life inside the juvenile justice system from equally uncomfortable perspectives—experiencing it and surviving it—and effectively convey the show’s unmistakable conviction that children don’t belong in jail.

Liss captures young lives incarcerated in Texas’ juvenile facilities, where 80,000 of the state’s kids spend time in juvenile or adult jails each year. Liss’ untitled images—overwhelmingly filled with male and Hispanic faces—cut to the heart of juvenile detention horrors, with effective documentary text. Shots of a young boy standing on a milk crate to get fingerprinted and a young boy angrily thrashing at air in his empty cell are juxtaposed with the tight shot of a boy’s face looking over hands clasped in prayer. These are unseen scenes of Texas juvie life.

Clarke captures a different story through his lens. His images look like beacons of hope: portraits of baby-faced juveniles, formerly incarcerated juveniles now grown up, and, in some cases, their caregivers and advocates, also accompanied by contextualizing captions. Shots of youth advocate Walker Gladden, who spent a large portion of his teenage years in Maryland’s juvie system, and Juvenile Court Judge Martin P. Welsh are mixed with portraits of unknown teens who look too naive to be locked up. These faces are overwhelmingly male and African-American, brooding and pensive—the lone smile comes from a young boy named Kevin, who narrowly missed life in the system.

Particularly poignant is a line from the pubescent Alan, about “Baby-Bookings,” the nickname for the embattled Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street. Throughout the text accompanying Clarke’s photos are stories from the incarcerated about the facility’s repugnant conditions, about having to eat where you piss and fearing the guards. Alan presciently sums up the experience with a trenchant world-weariness that belies his age: “You’re just like a mouse trapped in a corner when you’re there.”

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