Steve Liss, a native of Quincy, Massachusetts, has been a news photographer since the age of 17 when he began taking pictures for his hometown weekly newspaper, The Quincy Sun. He has been photographing the United States for Time since 1976.
Though Liss has covered six presidential campaigns, his greatest satisfaction comes from exploring themes of social significance through photographs of everyday life. Thirty-seven of his photographs have appeared on the cover of Time, and he has won numerous awards from the National Press Photographer’s Association, Pictures of the Year, and the World Press Association, including First Place: Magazine Picture Story in 1996 and First Place: Magazine Feature in 2003.
“I’m 16 years old and I have nothing to be proud of.” So begins Aurelio Dominguez’s candid disclosure, recorded in his cell at the juvenile detention facility in Laredo, Texas.
This is the stuff of juvenile delinquency, of kids gone astray, of child inmates who cry for their mothers from behind bars. Some have skipped class too much, some have murdered in cold blood. At least half of these kids have been incarcerated before and, if institutional rehabilitation is inadequate or ultimately fails, if parents do not do anything to turn around years of neglect and abuse, a few more visits to juvenile detention will harden many of them into full-fledged, adult criminals.
Nationally, nearly two million youth under the age of 18 are arrested each year and more than 130,000 spend time in juvenile or adult corrections facilities. Although most juvenile offenders are not violent, state legislatures have overwhelmingly responded to short-lived increases in juvenile crime during the late 1980s and early 1990s by moving away from rehabilitative approaches toward more punitive remedies for juvenile offenders. Since 1992, 47 states and the District of Columbia have made their juvenile justice systems more punitive.
These photographs represent six months of work documenting the lives of children incarcerated in the juvenile detention facility in Laredo. Here, as in similar facilities throughout the United States, young offenders aged 10-16, many suffering from mental illness and drug dependencies, are locked up, sometimes for weeks or months, waiting for trial or placement. Overcrowded and underresourced detention facilities were never designed to meet the needs of these children, but in Laredo, as in other jurisdictions nationwide, that is exactly what they are being asked to do.
“These are the least favorite kids in America,” said one children’s advocate. Yet these kids, for whom drugs, violence, and crime are part of daily life, want to be understood and need the chance to tell their stories. For many, nothing in their lives—not school, not home, not human relationships—has been positive or satisfying. Though they cope by doing the best they know how, most are ready to give up by the age of 12 or 14.
Yet beneath their despair and anger, these young offenders are just children, many of them intelligent and likable. While working on this project, I often had to fight the temptation to befriend them because I knew I would soon be leaving town—just one more adult walking out on them. This was particularly difficult because, even in the brief time I spent with them, I saw moments of promise. I believe that, like all children, they have the potential to change and grow.
Throughout my career I have been deeply concerned with youth, a commitment that shapes the way I approach my work and life. In giving a human face to the statistics on juvenile crime, I hope these photographs will challenge us to see these children not as a social ill, but rather a social responsibility. And by providing a glimpse into these children’s lives, perhaps their stories will encourage a more rehabilitative approach to juvenile detention.
—Steve Liss, October 2003