The Skinny on Evidence-Based Practices

Evidence-based Practices at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubSocial scientist Robert Martinson famously concluded in 1974 that “nothing works” to change the behavior of people encountering the justice system. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then.

Policymakers and system stakeholders now have an ever-growing set of policies, practices and programs that help youth in trouble with the law change their behavior and make communities safer. And far-sighted policymakers have invested heavily in evidence-based practices in a number of states. Examples include Connecticut and Nebraska (where advocates like the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance and Voices for Children in Nebraska, along with their allies, played a role in the adoption of evidence-based practices). That sort of success is something to celebrate.

But there’s a lot more to do to advance the spread of evidence-based practices. For this reason, next week, the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub will publish a new section devoted to evidence-based practices, drafted and curated by the National Juvenile Justice Network.

While not exhaustive, the section is meant to provide a useful guide to the key issues tied to defining and using evidence-based practices; trends at the state level supporting the use and improvement of evidence-based practices; an abbreviated set of specific resources you can download now; and a list of experts in the field. There’s even a short glossary.

Curious about what criteria are used to declare a program or practice “evidence-based”? Wonder how to determine what intervention to use with youth? Want information on how jurisdictions are adapting evidence-based treatment models to work with Latino youth? It will all be there on the Resource Hub.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to emphasize three things that don’t get talked about — or not enough, anyway — when we talk about evidence-based practices:

  1. Implementing an evidence-based program is hard. Everyone underestimates how hard. It’s a long process that requires thought, collaboration and a tenacious willingness to refine what you’re doing. Fortunately, the Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change, a Models for Change partner, has an excellent implementation guide — which we link to on the Hub — to help you do it right.
  2. There’s more work to do. Because we can now point to a list of programs that are evidence-based, it’s tempting to think that we have the answers we need — it’s just a matter of applying what we know. But we’re not done. More research is needed.After all, even the most thoroughly-researched interventions aren’t successful for every youth (whether we’re talking about lowering recidivism or attaining clinical goals), so there’s a need to develop alternatives. And we’re still learning how to adapt evidence-based practices for racial and ethnic communities — one approach, for example, is the Cultural Enhancement Model.
  3. Of course, the continuing popularity of programs like “Scared Straight” that actually make youth more likely to commit new crimes suggests that we have a ways to go in educating the general public about what really works to change behavior. Which leads me to my next point …
  1. Evidence-based practices alone aren’t enough to reform the juvenile justice system. Simply adopting and implementing evidence-based practices on a widespread basis is an enormous task. But if all we do to reform the juvenile justice system is have each jurisdiction adopt a set of fully-researched, well-implemented evidence-based practices, we will have failed our youth and our communities. We will still incarcerate too many children who don’t belong there, and keep extending their probation indefinitely while they “complete” their treatment. In too many communities already, youth have to commit a crime to get access to evidence-based care. As a result, we are unintentionally ensuring that more youth are more deeply involved in a justice system that research has shown is generally harmful to them and makes some of them more likely to commit new crimes. Instead, we need to change our values and assumptions about youth and the justice system.
  2. This is why the new section on the Resource Hub talks not only about the kinds of programs we usually think of as evidence-based, it also discusses promising practices and policies. For example, it describes ways that communities are changing policy to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline and adopting policies that promote deincarceration. It even talks about “positive youth justice,” a term coined by Jeffrey A. Butts, Gordon Bazemore and Aundra Saa Meroe to describe a juvenile justice system that’s based on using what we know about adolescent development to build youth’s assets, rather than merely fixing their deficits.
  3. That idea is not yet evidence-based — but for the sake of the youth in the justice system, their families and the safety of our communities, let’s hope it’s a glimpse of the future.

Benjamin Chambers is Communications Director at the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Publisher’s Note: Watch’s Continuing Coverage of Cops Smash Boy Through Window

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When Daryl Khan, our New City Metro bureau chief, broke the story “Cops Smash Boy Through Window in the Bronx,” he was fulfilling our mission that demands that we shine a spotlight on the darkest corners of the juvenile justice system.

At the same time, we aim to write stories on how to repair the system via best practices. We do it all via solid reporting by professional journalists such as Khan, backed up by commentary and with links to in-depth research.

Thanks to Khan’s reporting and then to all our socially conscious Facebook and Twitter connected audiences, the world now knows that 14-year-old Javier Payne almost bled to death in handcuffs after being smashed through a plate glass window while being arrested.

However, as solution-oriented journalists, we can’t leave the story there. Now we are doing a deep dive not only into what happened that night, but also to discover what in the system allows such an incident to happen and to be sure that justice is done for Javier and every other kid — and especially every kid of color — here in the Bronx and around the nation.

You can help by continuing to keep the story alive on social media networks as we continue to report on it. Just follow us on Facebook and Twitter where we can alert you and you can alert the world.

Support JJIEYou can help us in others ways too. We are blessed that The Tow Foundation, which saw worth in what we do, funded our New York Metro bureau at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism. That’s where Khan is based. We want to continue to grow on that investment and you can help by hitting the support button here on this page.

We know all know that Javier’s is just one story of many that need to be told in this era when traditional journalism institutions don’t have the resources or at times the inclination to go after the difficult stories or to cover the kids forgotten in the shadows of society. That’s our job — and yours — to ensure that injustices to our youth are amplified to the world. Thanks for joining us on this journey and for all the great work you do each day.

Reporter’s Notebook: A Question of Intention and Juvenile Solitary Confinement


A short drive outside the downtown of a small east Alabama city, set back from the road among the trees on a low hill, is an unassuming, one-story brick building. The bulky, straight lines of its facade give it the appearance of a 1970s-era post office. The building is unremarkable in almost every way — a physical expression of bureaucracy. A sign near the road reads, “Youth Services.” Affixed to the brick exterior are silver letters that spell “DETENTION CENTER.”

Just inside those walls are boys as young as 10 and as old as 18 who have been charged with juvenile offenses. The kids may stay for months or for just a few hours, but the detention center isn’t meant to be a long-term home. It’s one temporary stop on their journey through the juvenile justice system. By all accounts, it is one of the most progressive detention centers in Alabama. Its administrators and staff embrace openness and transparency. It is rare for a reporter or photographer to be given access to the inside of a detention center, but I was welcomed here.

lifeintheboxPast the building’s entrance and its dark glass doors is a small lobby with a few chairs. A heavy steel door divides the world of the free from the world of the detained and those who watch over them. With some reluctance I crossed the threshold of the door and entered the detention center proper.

I was immediately struck by the depression and resignation trapped like bad air inside the cinderblock walls. Although the staff were friendly and appeared to genuinely care about the boys for whom they were responsible, the detention center itself did not reflect this. Dimly lit hallways echoed only the sound of my footsteps. The raucous energy of teenage boys was absent, leaving a disquieting vacuum. The boys themselves were sequestered away, lounging together on worn-out beanbags in a large, dimly lit room, their eyes fixed on a television projecting brightly colored moving images across their expressionless faces.

A series of heavy steel doors painted the same dull beige as the wall lined a dim hallway. Stenciled in white spray paint upon each door were the letters “IS” and a number — “01,” “02,” “03” — continuing up to “07.” These were the isolation rooms, where juveniles detained at the center could be sent as punishment for violating the rules, or for protection if they are the target of violence by another youth.

Thousands of young people in the United States are placed in solitary every year. In many detention facilities, juveniles can be kept in an isolation cell for months at a time, or for a single day. During that time they may spend as many as 23 hours a day alone in a small concrete cell, their only human contact with facility staff. Often they are not allowed even a book to pass the time. The cell door may be unlocked once a day for "hygiene" and exercise.

The doors to the solitary cells were open in front of me — no youth were being held in isolation on that day — and I lingered for a moment. The isolation rooms were small and mostly empty. The only objects inside the cell were a metal cot, a thin sleeping mat folded in half on top of the cot and a combined metal toilet and sink in the front corner. A thin, vertical strip of a window, filled with opaque glass, was set in the rear corner, but the room’s light was overwhelmingly fluorescent and unnatural. I stood uncomfortably in the doorway, unwilling to go farther inside. I imagined standing in the isolation cell as the door swung shut behind me. How would I respond if I were locked in here? It was a terrifying thought.

At that moment I realized that no other room in the facility so clearly communicated its own singular purpose. This was a purely punitive space. All the good intentions in the world couldn’t change this, so that even a youth placed in the room for their own protection faced the potential mental harm isolation could cause.

The room was, in fact, designed to be a punitive space. Before it was built someone sat down and drew lines on paper defining the space, and they placed those lines where they did intentionally.

Intention. I’d always considered the word to have a positive connotation. But here I was, presented with the darker side of intention. It was clear that the slim, opaque window had been placed intentionally. The toilet was designed as it was intentionally, and placed where it was intentionally. The same was true of the metal cot, the paint on the cinder block walls and the formidable door that would seal the room off from the rest of the building — and cut off a young person from most human contact. All of these decisions were made intentionally in order to create a room whose sole purpose is to isolate a juvenile from the rest of the detention center, whether as punishment or for safety.

So whose intention led to the design of this room?

I returned home from my tour of the detention center grateful for and fully aware of the fact that I had been incredibly fortunate to avoid time in a similar facility when I was a teenager. Like so many of us, I made my share of poor decisions when I was young. But, whether through pure, stupid luck or because I made those poor choices at a time just before the widespread use of zero-tolerance rules — or maybe it was simply because I was white and middle class — I was never pulled in to the juvenile justice system and I never faced the horrifying prospect of long-term detention or, even worse, isolation.

But the question of intention lingered.

On reflection, my realization that someone has to design juvenile detention centers appears obvious — an example of privileged ignorance, perhaps, or maybe just ordinary naivete. But we must all acknowledge that we routinely take for granted architecture and design. How often do we take time to consider that someone designed our home, our office, the fast food restaurant where we grabbed lunch or the mall in which we shopped for a birthday present? We may rarely, if ever, think about it, but it remains true nonetheless. And it is just as true for the buildings and spaces that we hope never to visit — the prisons, jails and youth detention centers.

And so, like a casual movie fan who takes a film studies class and finds they can no longer watch a movie without analyzing the “mise-en-scene,” I began to see intentional design everywhere, and my thoughts returned to the isolation rooms I’d seen in the Alabama juvenile detention center, and extended to the isolation rooms I’d probably never see in juvenile facilities across the United States.

Isolation, Human Rights and Punitive Architecture

In early 2013, I ran across an essay by architect, activist and Soros Justice Fellow Raphael Sperry in which he argues that architects should cease designing spaces intended for “executions or prolonged solitary confinement.” He calls it a human rights issue.

In his essay, Sperry never specifically discusses isolation rooms in juvenile detention centers. But, I thought, if isolation rooms in adult prisons have the potential to violate human rights it would follow that the same would also be true — if not more true — of isolation rooms in juvenile detention centers.

I asked Sperry about this in a telephone interview. He agreed with my logic, but went one step farther.

“I think it’s possible to say that juvenile halls that are built to the standard of not violating human rights can still be pretty horrible places and wouldn’t live up to the aspiration of human rights, even though you’ve designed them without isolation,” he said.

“There are a lot of things that you can do in juvenile halls that are extremely unpleasant and that make for really bad outcomes for kids,” he said. But even though these things “create a lot of human suffering,” he added, they may not qualify as human rights violations according to standards set by the United Nations and others.

Currently, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Code of Ethics calls on architects to “uphold human rights in all their endeavors.”

But, Sperry told me, architects shouldn’t be content with only being able to say, “We didn’t violate anyone’s human rights.”

Sperry is president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), which last year launched a campaign to amend the AIA’s code of ethics to include enforceable language about human rights and building projects. The proposed language would read:

Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.

(“Intended” ... There’s that word again.)

Sperry says that not only is the new language more specific, if approved the statement would be included in the code as an enforceable rule instead of the current language’s designation as an “ethical standard,” which is really just an impossible-to-enforce suggestion for professional practice.

"The core of professional ethics for architects revolves around protecting public health, safety and welfare," Sperry said. Additionally this new language would put architects in step with the ethics of medical professionals, which, at a minimum, specifically prohibit participating in executions and torture.

Nevertheless, Sperry’s proposed language raises a question the United States (and at least one recent presidential administration) has struggled with for years: How do we define torture? In fact, how do we define what are human rights? Because one man’s “torture” is another’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For its part, ADPSR accepts human rights standards defined by the United Nations.

“If we are committed to human rights, which is the language the AIA chose [and] which I still support, that links us to the whole international human rights system,” Sperry said. “That means we should take seriously what the United Nations says.”

For example, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, said the isolation of adults should be used only in the most “exceptional circumstances” and the solitary confinement of juveniles and the mentally ill should be banned outright by all nations.

“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” he told the U.N. General Assembly’s third committee in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Before beginning his campaign, Sperry read much of the research cited by the U.N. “about the irreversible psychological damage that people experience when they are in solitary confinement.”

“It’s the denial of any opportunity for any social contact, or any physical contact, that is so painful and cruel, inhuman and degrading,” Sperry said. “And there are elements of the architectural design, especially in supermax prisons for adults, where you see that really borne out in a striking way.”

The U.N. isn’t the only organization decrying the use of juvenile isolation. A 2012 report jointly published by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, "Growing Up Locked Down," found that because juveniles “are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow." And a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which was signed by 40 advocacy groups, called on Holder to prohibit the use of solitary confinement on youth in federal custody. "The practice is not only cruel," the letter says, "but counterproductive for both rehabilitation and facility security."

Sperry’s campaign to keep architects from designing spaces for isolation or other human rights violations appears to be making headway. An online petition has received some 1,300 digital signatures as of March 13, and at least one local AIA chapter has endorsed the proposed amendment to the code of ethics.

In fact, increased public and political attention has been put on the use of solitary confinement for both youth and adults, so that the ADPSR campaign has become one strong voice in a growing choir. In February, a Congressional hearing explored the possibility of implementing a ban on the use of isolation for certain inmates. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called solitary confinement of juveniles “a human rights issue we can’t ignore.”

The Abuse of Spaces

Laura Abrams, associate professor and chair of the Social Welfare Doctoral Program at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, has worked in residential facilities, many with isolation cells. In 2013, she testified before the California state Senate Public Safety committee about juvenile solitary confinement.

“The use of solitary confinement is not an evidence-based practice in behavior modification or in psychiatric care,” she told the committee. “To the contrary, a robust body of research confirms that isolated confinement can provoke and/or exacerbate severe psychiatric symptoms of psychosis, hallucinations, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.”

When I spoke with Abrams she was not aware of the campaign by Sperry and ADPSR to keep architects from designing isolation spaces. I asked her what she thought of it.

“I think that the problem isn’t that there are the spaces; I think the problem is that they’re abused,” she said. However, she added, “some of the spaces are designed to be punitive. They look punitive. I think we have to reorient our thinking toward safety, treatment — but sometimes youth will have to go in those rooms.”

The reality is that juvenile detention facilities can be dangerous places, she added.

“Given that there are times that the youth are at risk of harming themselves or others, and given that are different levels of facilities that handle youth with severe mental disabilities or very violent tendencies, there need to be spaces for youth to be separated from others,” she said. “Sometimes you need to be able to separate the youth who are acting out, and you need to be able to do that in a safe and therapeutic way.”

Psychological support is crucial, she said, including regular visits from a counselor.

Abrams likens it to how a parent responds to an unruly child at home.

“I mean, why do parents send their kids to their rooms? It’s the same principle as that,” she said. “When my kids are feeling out of control I’ll say, ‘You can go up to your room and calm down and in 10 minutes I’ll come up and we can talk about it.’ You give them a time frame and then you follow that isolation with some kind of therapeutic support.”

The problem, she says, is that in corrections that usually doesn’t happen.

Although Abram’s position made sense to me when considered through the pragmatic perspective of someone with experience working inside residential facilities, I couldn’t square it with my own impressions of solitary. I couldn’t imagine how the isolation cells I visited could be ever used for anything other than punishment. How could those hard, sterile rooms, which are designed intentionally for sensory-deprivation, be used therapeutically, even if a young person only spent a brief time inside? I couldn’t see how any counseling that might take place in an isolation cell could result in a positive outcome — the room simply wouldn’t allow it. Only distress and anxiety could survive in that sort of space.

But ultimately it is the isolation that can be so damaging to a young person’s mental health. Even a calm, zen garden theoretically could be used to keep someone isolated from the rest of society. What chance does a room stand when its very intention is isolation? Was this not precisely why the U.N. (and more recently, Sen. Durbin) called for a complete ban on placing youth in isolation cells?

Maybe, Abrams told me, something could be done to remove the stigma and the punitive nature of isolation cells.

In her book, “Compassionate Confinement,” Abrams describes in detail the detention facility in which she conducted a 16-month study. Not far from the facility’s common room is a hallway leading to the youth’s sleeping area, she writes. Along this hallway is:

a single secure cell called the isolation room consisting of a small window, a concrete bed-slab without a mattress, and an exposed toilet and sink. The locked door of this room had a narrow observation window through which the entire room is visible. On our first tour of the dorm, the head of Unit C informed us that the isolation room was used only rarely for youth who were really out of control. Nevertheless, its centrality and visibility (residents walked past the isolation room on the way to and from their sleeping area) clearly made it a looming threat and perhaps the main reminder to us and the residents that this was indeed a juvenile jail.

I tried to recall where the isolation cells were situated in the detention center I visited. They were placed along the hallway leading to the dorms. You couldn’t go to bed at night without passing them.

Blaming the Architect

Perhaps Abrams was correct — that isolation cells were a necessary tool for maintaining the safety of everyone inside a juvenile detention facility, residents and staff included. On a day-to-day basis this could very well be true. But I remembered something Raphael Sperry, the architect and president of ADPSR, told me during our earlier conversation, which I had originally dismissed as an interesting anecdote, confining it away in my reporter’s notebook.

Sperry told me this: “Probably, today, the vast majority of torture and killing — human rights abuses — take place in spaces that weren’t intended for that purpose. In Argentina, the regime in the ‘80s during the dirty war, their number one torture center was an auto repair shop. Nobody’s going to blame the architect of the auto repair shop for it having become [a place of torture].”

Every isolation cell in every juvenile detention center in the United States could be redesigned with calm muted paint colors, cushioned mattresses with soft sheets and blankets, and luxurious, private bathrooms but it wouldn’t matter. Their purpose would remain to isolate the youth from contact with others. And whether that isolation meant for punishment or for safety, it would never change the fact that isolation is inherently mentally damaging to a young person’s still-developing brain.

If the AIA adopts Sperry’s proposed language, the intention of isolation could no longer be assigned to architects. New prisons or juvenile detention facilities built in the country subsequent to the rule’s adoption would be free of rooms intended to be used for isolation or solitary.

But what about rooms or spaces that were not initially intended for that purpose? Couldn’t prison and juvenile detention center administrators simply repurpose some other room in their facility so that it functions as an isolation cell? Freeing architects of the responsibility may simply lay bare the intentions of many in the U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems.

That remains to be seen. There will always be rooms in which to keep someone isolated, and all of the therapy and counseling in the world won’t change what the U.N. believes and that study after study has shown — that isolation is inherently psychologically damaging. Given that, it would be easy to believe that both Sperry’s campaign to keep architects from designing isolation cells and the solutions included in the California bill for which Abrams testified are half measures at best. But perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. At the very least, they’ve started an important conversation worthy of a national debate.

Pictures at a (Gun) Exhibition

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- The mood outside the Clarence Brown Conference Center really cannot be considered anything other than festive. Throngs of friends and neighbors clump together, some of them still wearing their Sunday best, laughing and chit-chatting in the parking lot. Entire families -- mothers, fathers, sons and daughters -- trickle in and out of the building. Some of the kids skip their way merrily towards the front entrance. Everyone there, it seems, has a smile on their face.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday -- just a few hours before kickoff – but the place is jam-packed with visitors and patrons. While football fever grips the rest of the country, the people of this small, mountainous northwest Georgia community are caught up in an entirely different kind of frenzy; one fueled not by a love of pigskin, but a love of cold steel and buckshot.

This afternoon, the guns outnumbered people 3-to-1. In one room, there is more firepower than the combined munitions of the entire county’s police forces. Rugers, Colts, Glocks, Bushmasters and Berretas; AR-15s, P229s, M9s, SR-566s and SIG50s; pistols, revolvers, shotguns and rifles -- both bolt-action and semi-automatic. There are even some vendors just selling parts of guns, like handles and barrels.

White folks are everywhere. There aren’t many African-Americans. Virtually zero Hispanics bothered to come. A majority of the attendees skew towards middle-aged and older, but there are more than a few young dead-eyes and aspiring marksmen.

Numerous warnings are posted on the glass doors of the building, among them, signage that says children aren’t allowed into the show without adult supervision. Despite the policy, it remains clear the show is marketed as something of a family event, with numerous displays and exhibits selling BB guns, pink “My First Rifles” and homemade jewelry crafted out of bullet fragments. Just a few feet away from a table of assault rifles, one seller is handing out bubble gum and lollipops to the exhibit’s youngest patrons.
Only a keen eyed visitor would spot the Youth Handgun Safety Act notices, which spells out the criminal penalties for sellers violating the Gun Control Act of 1968. “A knowing violation of the prohibition against selling, delivering, or otherwise transferring a handgun to a person under the age of 18 is, under certain circumstances, punishable by up to 10 years in prison,” the pamphlets reads. A small stack of them are on an unmanned table, alongside several copies of paperwork used by dealers at the event to weed out potential straw purchases.

Photo by James Swift

Just feet away, two young girls -- certainly elementary school students -- wade past the choked and clogged walkways between tables, each of them gleefully toting rifles that are twice their heights. Grinning from ear to ear, and hardly able to walk without wobbling over, they soon fade into the convention’s sea of humanity as their father, marching behind them, chirps, “Just don’t shoot anybody.”

Of course, firearms aren’t the only thing on sale at the event. Merchants hawk weaponry of all kinds, from throwing stars to stun guns, and plenty of gun culture paraphernalia. One exhibitor sells exploding skeet shoot targets, while seemingly every other table offers cut-out “zombie” themed shooting practice boards.

Outside the main sales hall, bulletproof vest vendors and concealed-weapons-carry proponents hobnob over chips and soda. A popular topic of discussion among a particularly chatty twosome involves the appearance of the Sandy Hook children’s choir at the Super Bowl. According to one, the decision was some sort of furtive attempt to sell the nation on further gun restriction legislation. Another is outraged over Georgia laws forbidding firearms in places of worship. Another example of the government forcing itself upon religion, he believes.

Then there is the dealer selling T-shirts with illustrations of George Washington printed on them, with lettering underneath championing him as “the first white president” of the United States. At the opposite end of the room, one seller, who is opposed to letting visitors photograph his wares, placed a piece of cardboard with a message attacking Vice President Joe Biden next to his inventory.

Photo by James Swift

Deeper inside, is the vendor selling Nazi paraphernalia -- an array of Third Reich daggers and various Wehrmacht trinkets -- while another sells Ku Klux Klan memorabilia. Sandwiched between a couple of .22 Mag cartridges, one lucky attendee may find that KKK-branded pocket knife he or she has always dreamed of.

A deep undercurrent of political resentment isn’t just palpable at the event, it is proudly on display, with numerous vendors sporting T-shirts with unmistakable ideological leanings. Despite literally wearing the message upon their chests, several vendors refuse to be photographed while donning their own merchandise.

“Two things every American should know how to use,” reads one T-shirt for sale. Underneath the text are images of a handgun and a Bible, both of which were dyed red, white and blue. “Neither of which are taught in schools,” the lettering below the objects read.

A young boy, with a fat, cherubic face, soon gallops past the display.

No one in the vicinity seems to notice him. Nor did anyone seem to notice the rifle he had slung over his shoulder.

Photo by Mike Saechang |

Teen Photographers Take Spotlight at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center

Photographers Dani and Devin speak with the Alliance Theatre's Director of Educational Programs, Christopher Moses.

Urban Deconstruction,” an exhibit sponsored by Wells Fargo’s ArtsVibe Teen Program and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), paints a dual portrait of Atlanta as both a modern marvel and a city in decay. The photographs on display at the Alliance Theater are a vision of the Southeastern metropolis as both towering buildings and dilapidated structures, a place where spiraling skyscrapers stand side-by-side with crumbling schoolhouses and abandoned, graffiti-covered interiors. The artwork, much like the city itself, is a demonstration of sharp contrasts and contradictions.

The artists behind the exhibit, however, aren’t your average photojournalists. Devin Black, 18, of Sandy Springs, Ga. and Dani Planer, 15, of  Atlanta, are two photographers who have been given a spotlight that would make most postgraduate photographers envious.

“It’s definitely really cool,” Black said about having his photographs on display at one of the Southeast’s most prestigious galleries. “Having it up on the wall is a lot better than just showing people your photos on a laptop screen.”

Planer also considers herself both honored and privileged to have her photographs on display. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this to come out of it,” she said.

Black and Planer’s project began when the two took a journalism class together at Atlanta’s The Galloway School, and became aware of their mutual photography interests. “We both like living in the city and exploring it,” Black said.

Planer said what would eventually become “Urban Deconstruction” began when, one day, they simply went outdoors and started taking photographs of their local landscape.

“When we walked outside the city,” Planer said, “we saw what it truly consisted of, which was deconstructed buildings and just an abandoned Atlanta, basically.”

She recalls entering an abandoned building off Dekalb Avenue and being surprised by the amount of overgrowth encircling it. “One of the buildings was just so overgrown with trees and vines that it was almost like it wasn’t even in the city anymore,” she said. The site of her favorite photograph in the exhibit, she stated, more closely resembled forest scenery than a metropolitan area.

Black believes the photographs give people a view of the city that some individuals living in Atlanta may never encounter. “Looking back,” he said, “they kind of give people a window on Atlanta.”

Black said his favorite photograph in the exhibition harked back to a peculiar childhood interest.

“I know one photo I kind of cherish,” he said. “It’s the photo of all the traffic safety lights, just scattered on a big pile on the floor.”

“As a kid,” he continued, “for some reason, I was obsessed with traffic cones and roadwork equipment.”

Black, who has applied to schools such as New York University, Northeastern University and the University of California, Los Angeles, said he would like explore some “creative ventures” for his next project. He said he wishes to continue photographing Atlanta’s urban landscapes, particularly finding ways to incorporate the city’s inhabitants into his artwork. “It adds a lot more to the story of a picture,” he said.

Planer said she wants patrons of the exhibit  to note the duality of their metropolitan stomping grounds.

“We hope people realize that the beautiful city that they live in also consists of these abandoned buildings that they see every day, but don’t even notice,” she said.

After high school, Planer said she would like to minor in photography while pursuing a major in psychology, stating that she would like to one day do another photographic project about families. “Photographs of different families, from different cultures,” she said. “With, I guess, 10 items that represent what their kind of culture is.”

Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, praised Black and Planer’s photography, stating that he felt “honored” to publish their work on JJIE prior to the Woodruff Arts Center exhibit.

“We feel honored that they chose us first and more importantly that they might lead the way for other youth produced special projects,”  Witt said. “After all, our mission is to provide insight into issues affecting youth and who better to provide that insight than youth themselves.”

“Urban Deconstruction” will be on display at the Joseph R. Bankoff Gallery at the Woodruff Arts Center until Jan 21.

Photo by John Flemming.

Review: ‘The Central Park Five’


 An imperfect film reminds Americans of chilling crime and those wrongfully convicted

It’s often said that the more you know about something, the less you are apt to like a film about it. So let me state up front that I was living in New York City (in a single room occupancy hotel not far from Central Park, in fact — I went running in the park almost every day), in 1989, so I remember the Central Park jogger case quite well.

In fact, if you lived in the city at the time, it was almost impossible not to hear about the case, including the controversy over the treatment of the young men arrested and later convicted of this crime. The case also received nationwide coverage, as did the fact that someone else later confessed to the crime, and that the Five’s convictions were overturned in 2002.

Apparently most Americans don’t know much about this case, however, and they may be better served than I was by The Central Park Five, a new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The film begins with the taped confession of the actual assailant, Matias Reyes, so that there’s never a moment’s doubt that the Five were falsely convicted. The focus of the film is on how it happened — how five young men were arrested, interrogated, confessed, convicted and (much later) exonerated.

It’s a chilling story that points to one conclusion: after this horrific crime (a young woman was raped, severely beaten, and left for dead in the park), the police picked up some young men who were in the vicinity (and, in fact, were part of a large group of young men who had committed several assaults earlier that evening, although this is downplayed in the film), and interrogated and intimidated them until they confessed to the rape and beating of the Central Park jogger.

It’s no secret that police may use various interrogation techniques when they want to get a confession, that the person being questioned may not know his or her rights, and that under pressure, people may confess to all sorts of things they haven’t done. That’s what happened in this case, and when the invented confessions didn’t match, that didn’t cause anyone in authority to question whether something had gone amiss. It also didn’t matter that there was no physical evidence linking the Five to the attack — the confessions were enough to convince a jury.

The Central Park Five is a straightforward documentary consisting primarily of archival footage and talking heads (New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer appears so frequently that he serves as the de facto narrator). It creates a portrait of a city (white and African American alike) terrified of violent teenagers — “wilding” and “wolf pack” are terms particularly associated with 1980s New York — and who focused that fear on the case. The fact that the assault took place in Central Park, as close as you can get to sacred ground for New Yorkers, certainly brought more attention to the case, as did the fact that the victim was white and the accused African American and Hispanic. Those dynamics are not specific to New York, of course, and I’m not sure they’ve changed all that much over the years, but they are part of the story.

The Central Park Five has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, which I find somewhat mystifying — to me it’s a respectable but often tedious film that adds little to what is already well known about this episode. On the other hand, given Americans’ notoriously poor sense of history, maybe they need a refresher course in the facts of this case, and for that purpose The Central Park Five will fill the bill.

Review of The War on Kids (Spectacle Films)

We’re living in a Golden Age for documentary film — thanks to digital technology, it’s easier than ever to make a documentary, and thanks to the Internet and DVDs, it’s easier than ever to watch one. This is both good and bad — good in that you don’t need a lot of resources to create a documentary, and the cost of watching one can be free, or at least far less than what you would pay for a ticket to a movie theatre. The problem is that a lot of half-baked documentaries are getting made and distributed, and it can be hard for a potential audience member to figure out which documentaries are worth his or her time.

Cevin Soling’s 2009 documentary, The War on Kids, is typical of a lot of the digital documentaries being produced today. It’s neither great nor terrible, but it’s an OK watch if you have an interest in the subject matter and a tolerance for directors who hammer their point of view at you for 95 minutes, without providing a lot of context or research support and no alternative voices at all.

Seriously, The War on Kids often feels like a high-tech sermon intent only on preaching to the choir, and likely to be seen only by those who already agree with its point of view. That’s not entirely a bad thing: sermons can promote group bonding, not to mention getting people charged up and ready for battle, but if you’re looking for a reasoned analysis of the general question suggested by this film — is America engaging in a war on its own kids? — you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The War on Kids starts promisingly enough, with a segment on zero tolerance that traces that policy back to the 1980s, when fear of guns in schools and of so-called “super predator” young people led schools to adopt policies that prescribed automatic punishments like suspensions for kids who brought guns to school. Over the years this zero tolerance concept policy got applied to more and more behaviors, and the punishments got harsher and harsher, leading to the kind of incidents you sometimes hear about on the news (several such clips are provided here), where a kid gets suspended for bringing a Disney key chain to school, or for drawing a picture including a gun. I think we can all agree this is nuts, right? We could use some analysis of the forces that keep such policies in place (hint—it has a lot to do with politics and economics), rather than a parade of similar incidents and talking heads telling us about them, but Soling settles for the latter far more often than he does the former.

A segment comparing schools to prisons, with particular emphasis on security cameras, is also fairly successful, in no large part because a field trip to a correctional institution, and footage captured by school security cameras, provide Soling with something other than talking heads and news clips to put up on screen. Video captured by security cameras during the Columbine High School massacre says more clearly than words that such cameras don’t necessarily increase security (but they do provide great clips for the news).

Even more compelling is footage of a SWAT team raid in a South Carolina high school — as the terrified students are forced to lie down in the hall, at gunpoint and while being menaced by German Shepherds, it appears they are being taken prisoner by some international terrorist gang. The raid found no drugs, but the local superintendent, George McCracken, feels it was justified because “People are trying to figure out – how do you stop this terrible disease of drug addiction” and “the intentions were pure.” It’s one of the more satisfying sections in the entire documentary — to watch a terrifying but fruitless police raid, then see a person bearing some responsibility for that raid speak about it in the third person and with reference to good intentions rather than the reality of the results, is priceless.

Unfortunately, The War on Kids soon degenerates into a diffuse lament about everything that’s wrong with America’s schools (not what’s wrong about some specific schools), from dumb but power-mad teachers to overuse of Ritalin to assigned reading to a school day consisting of an orderly succession of classes.

So many broad statements are made, most without citing any specific research, that it becomes exhausting to try to decide which of the succession of talking heads might be worth listening to, and which are just enjoying their time before the camera. That may be Soling’s intent — to compel you to give up trying to think critically, and just float along with the current of the opinions presented — which is, ironically enough, one of his key complaints about the effects of schooling on children.

Ultimately, The War on Kids fails, beyond the previously cited purpose as a sermon/pep talk for the already converted, because it too often takes the easy way out and assumes what it should prove.

You can read more about The War on Kids on its web page here and watch it for free on YouTube.

Review: ‘The House I Live In’

Maurice Haltiwanger in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, an Abramorama release 2012. Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.
Maurice Haltiwanger in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, an Abramorama release 2012. Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman.

In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to the dangers of the military-industrial complex, a network of political and economic relationships among politicians, the military, and the defense industry that threatened to become self-perpetuating and independent of criticism or effective oversight by anyone outside this iron triangle.

The subject of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a similarly self-perpetuating entity, the prison-industrial complex, as fueled by America’s so-called “War on Drugs.” The facts are shocking to anyone outside this triangle of politicians, correctional institutions, and private contractors:

  • The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • Today, more people in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes in 1970.
  • One in eight state employees today works for a corrections agency.
  • About 14 percent of drug users in the United States are African American, but 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American.

Any reasonable person, faced with these statistics, might well wonder what is going on. How is it, in an era when many state and local governments are strapped for cash to provide basic services to their constituents, there is still money to arrest people for nonviolent drug offenses (more than 82 percent of drug arrests in 2007 were for possession) and build new prisons to house them? Why does the burden of this war fall so disproportionately on African Americans? And how is it, after 40 years, with more than 45 million arrests and $1 trillion in expenditures, illegal drugs are at least as available in the nation as they were when Richard Nixon first declared war on them in 1971?

Teasing out these answers is Jarecki’s concern in The House I Live In, which finds the roots of American drug laws in racism. Time and time again, rather than directly attack the rights of people viewed as outsiders, politicians found it more politically expedient to criminalize habits associated with them.

So opium was a legal drug in the United States until the turn of the 20th century, when anti-opium laws became a means to attack Chinese immigrant communities. Hemp was an ordinary crop until marijuana became associated with Mexican laborers who, like the Chinese, competed with white Americans for jobs. In the 1980s, national hysteria over crime led to laws that penalized offenses involving crack cocaine (associated with poor African Americans living in the inner cities) far more severely than offenses involving similar amounts of powder cocaine (associated with white people living in the suburbs).

Jarecki’s personal window into the human consequences of America’s war on drugs, initiated by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is provided in the person of Nanny Jeter, a now elderly woman who served as the Jarecki’s housekeeper when Eugene and his siblings were growing up. One of Jeter’s sons died of drug-related causes, and as Jarecki tries to understand why this young man’s life turned out so differently from his own, he calls upon many expert witnesses who offer their views of America’s drug laws.

There’s no confusion about Jarecki’s point of view in The House I Live In— he’s out to make the case that America’s drug laws cause far more damage, to individuals and communities, than drug use ever has. But what is surprising is the variety and number of people he found who were willing to share their personal experiences in America’s drug war.

The testimony of academic experts (Gabor Maté, Carl Hart), activists (Mark Mauer, Michelle Alexander), and  journalists (Charles Bowden, David Simon, the latter also known as the creator of HBO’s The Wire) are expected in this type of documentary, but when prison officials, guards and a federal judge are willing to say on camera that the system isn’t working, you have to wonder why it continues.

Jarecki finds some of the explanation in the generally impermeable nature of the prison-industrial complex, but also finds plenty of blame to lay at the feet of the ordinary Americans who facilitate the current system. Politicians know that claiming to be “tough on crime” and “tough on drugs” resonates with voters, while suggesting that other approaches (treatment, education) might produce better results is tantamount to handing the election to your opponent. Any policy that threatens to reduce the prison population also threatens to undermine the economic survival of communities in which a prison job is the best job available.  The main burden of the current system falls on poor, non-white people, and they’re not the most politically-influential group of individuals, so it’s easy to overlook their suffering. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

The House I Live In won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters in October. More information about the film, and the issues it covers, are available from the official website:

Richard Ross: Juvenile-in-Justice Photo Exhibit Reviewed

Juvenile-in-Justice, an exhibition of 50 large-scale color prints by award-winning photographer Richard Ross, will open at the Sturgis Library Art Gallery at Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Ga., on Oct. 9, 2012. Ross’s photographs, based on five years of work interviewing and photographing young people involved in the juvenile justice system, document the realities of life in juvenile justice facilities across the country.

The young people featured in these photographs have different levels of involvement in the criminal justice

system—some have been tried and convicted, while others are being held in detention while waiting for the gears of the system to turn. A variety of settings are also featured, from segregation cells to recreation areas.

And yet, the overriding impression in these photographs is the depressing sameness of the facilities. Their dominant colors range from grey to beige, with concrete blocks a primary structural element. When bright colors appear in these photos, they often seem out of place, as if a kindergarten classroom had been converted overnight into a juvenile detention facility.

You seldom get a complete, unobscured view of a subject’s face in these photographs. Instead, they are seen from the back, at long distance or in extreme close-up, or their faces are partially cropped out of the frame, blurred by motion or hidden behind their hands or hair. This approach serves the obvious purpose of protecting the privacy of the individuals pictured, but it also serves a larger purpose. When you can’t see exactly who each subject is, they become young everymen and everywomen—not a particular kid locked up in a cell, but a young person not that dissimilar from your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the neighbor kids. It’s easy to forget about juveniles who become involved with the justice system, as long as you’re sure it has nothing to do with you and yours. Ross’ photos don’t allow you to erect that kind of barrier between his subjects and yourself.

The captions give you more of the details about the kids involved, and they’re often more shocking than the photos. The young man in prison stripes (outlawed as dehumanizing in some states over 100 years ago)? He’s 14 years old, “low functional” and spends most of his time sitting in his cell. That kid standing with his back to you, at the far end of his cell? He’s 10 years old, stabbed a classmate in school, and is waiting for his mother to get off work so she can come and get him. The girl covering her face with her long blonde hair? She’s 15 and is in for “partying and truancy”; she also uses meth.

Ross highlights the hard geometrical features of the detention facilities, finding a strange, abstract beauty in their square lines and patterns. The uniformity of the windowless cells pictured in a group of eight identically-framed photographs, shot between 2008 and 2010 in five facilities in four different states, serves to highlight the small differences—the shape of the ceiling fixtures, whether the bed is free-standing or built into the wall—but this contemplation of form and line comes to a halt when you realize that a series of young human beings will call those cells home, possibly for an extended period of time.

Ross’ work has similarities with many documentarians, from the turn-of-the century social reformer Jacob Riis to the contemporary human rights photographer Fernando Moleres. But I see a particularly strong kinship between Ross’ work and that of Shelby Lee Adams, a contemporary photographer famous for his portraits of Appalachian families. While there are many superficial differences—Adams always shows the face of his subjects, places them in rich environments, and works primarily in black and white—on a deeper
level there’s a strong correspondence. Like Adams, Ross’ photographs are always carefully arranged, with full awareness of the context in which his subjects live and with particular effort to finding visual details that tell you who they are. Equally important, Ross, like Adams, honors the individuality and dignity of his subjects, and brings the experience of their lives to a public who might otherwise be aware of their existence.

We’re constantly bombarded by visual information, so much so that it’s really difficult for any visual artist to grab your attention and make you think. Richard Ross is one photographer who can do just that—the photographs of Juvenile-in-Justice will linger in your mind long after you have left the exhibit, and I doubt you will ever think of kids in trouble the same way again.

The exhibition Juvenile-in-Justice is co-hosted by Kennesaw State University, the Center for Sustainable Journalism, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and will be on display in the Sturgis Library Art Gallery from Oct. 9 to Nov. 1, 2012. Ross will give a public lecture on Oct. 9, 2012, at 5 p.m. in the Prillaman Hall Auditorium, followed by an opening reception in the Sturgis Library Art Gallery. Learn more here and tell your friends.

Photos by Richard Ross. 

Abandoned Atlanta: Teens Portray the Forgotten, the Unheard of, and the Remnants of a Complicated City

The sight of decrepit, abandoned buildings can evoke many different reactions. They can inspire or disgust, educate or anger, thrill or frighten. Abandoned buildings serve as a reminder of our history---as well as our disappointments---and the art created of them can paint a vivid picture of urban decay.

Being the oddball out of capital cities, Atlanta was not built on a major body of water. Instead, it grew as a central railroad hub of ill repute.  It was a city of prostitution, gambling, and violence for a long time. This history must be remembered in order to fully understand its present.  With a foundation built around the railroad, it was only a matter of time before the technical advancements of the Industrial Revolution made that form of transportation obsolete. Since then Atlanta has recreated its status as ‘transportation hub’ through the Hartsfield International Airport (the biggest in the states). And with the airport, the city became again a center for prostitution.

The majority of Atlanta’s history is riddled with racism, capitalist incentives, and middle class individualism, all factors that led to the ‘white flight’ into the suburbs of the 60s and 70s. Large amounts of middle and upper class taxpayers left urban residences for plush, safe suburban living, taking with them millions of tax dollars which left the city of Atlanta struggling. Decades pushed forward and the suburbs of Atlanta (especially to the North of the city) flourished as the city itself fell into disrepair. Once funded schools, public works buildings, prisons, and rail yards emptied then decayed.

The city is sprinkled with these relics of a bygone era, including the main characters of the photographs from two high school photographers, Dani P. (age 14, grade 9) and Devin B. (age 17, grade 12). Through their work, Dani and Devin tell us the story of a forgotten Atlanta, an abandoned Atlanta. They use these dilapidated leftovers to explain the consequences of urban decay and shed some much needed light into the stories of the abandoned.

To view this full story, complete with artwork, visit the Abandoned Atlanta feature on JJIE's sister site Bokeh.