FACT: The United States is the only country in the world where judges have the power to sentence children to life in prison.

Richard Ross, the gutsy photojournalist behind Juvenile In Justice, shared this alarming statistic at a presentation on Monday as part of this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Series. Students and other audience members in the Chace Auditorium listened intently as the activist shared his arresting portraiture of incarcerated youths and talked about his ongoing project, which aims to inform the public about the horrific dysfunction embedded in the juvenile justice system.

“See how oppressive this architecture is?” asked Ross as he gestured to an image of an eight-year-old boy sitting alone in a cramped, windowless cell. “We’re placing our children in these sh••holes that destroy them psychologically. It’s bullying and it’s not an effective way to reform these [offenders]. We have to change this culture.”

When speaking to girls behind bars, Ross often hears eerily similar accounts of familial neglect, sexual abuse and drug dependence. More often than not, their rocky paths lead to prostitution. “It’s the same story told by a different person,” he explains. “These girls just need help – not jail time.”

Ross is now assembling a network of journalists, photographers, educators and activists to help advocate for prison reform legislation. Before stepping off stage, he asked anyone interested in helping to join his activism efforts. “When I was in my 20s, I felt rudderless – like I couldn’t do anything meaningful,” he said. “But I have to tell you that one person can make a difference.”

Curious to learn more about Ross’ visit to RISD? Check out this news story on risd.edu!

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