First Monday Speaker Discusses Art as Activism

Written by Emily Kressley

Richard Ross spoke at Block 4’s First Monday on “Art as Activism—Juveniles in Justice.” Ross drew a large crowd in explaining his work to raise awareness for the conditions of juvenile prisoners through the Juvenile in Justice project.

In the U.S., children are being tried as adults, but without adult rights, because they are unaware of them. Ross used the example of one boy who waited 4 1/2 years until he was put on trial, disregarding the Sixth Amendment of right to a speedy trial.

Latino youth are four times as likely to receive an adult sentence as a white child with the same charges, and African Americans are nine times as likely.  Every child ages 13 and 14 sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicidal crime was of color. In one specific institution, all 88 girls, as well as most of the boys, had been sexually assaulted prior to their conviction. Three-quarters of girls incarcerated have a type of mental illness.

On average it costs $88,000 to keep a child in a detention center, whereas it costs $8,700 to put them through the school system.  All evidence presented by Ross supported that instead of incarceration, children should be put through rehabilitation and education. Overall, the consensus of the audience was greatly in support of Ross’s work. 

When asked what prompted students in the audience to attend the lecture, answers ranged from having no prior knowledge about the subject matter to simply being interested in the topic. One student, Evan Doherty, sought to understand how to better create meaningful, socially relevant art in her own work.

Visitors to the IdeaSpace peruse the current exhibit on the Incarceration Nation. Photo by Daniel Sarché
Visitors to the IdeaSpace peruse the current exhibit on the Incarceration Nation. Photo by Daniel Sarché

One of the artistic mediums Ross used to convey his project was photography. Ross’s use of photography throughout the presentation not only made the content more accessible to the audience, but also more emotionally evocative. The photos provided faces and lives attached to the statistics. No matter how much an audience knew or expected beforehand, overall the audience felt overwhelmingly shocked by the images. First-year Cameron Bellian was highly impacted by the photos, stating “You can write about [the prison experience] but no one really knows what it looks like, most people haven’t been to prison.”

First-year Ben Seitz-Sitek was most surprised by the fact that one is able to predict the likelihood of a child’s imprisonment, or if they will go to college, based on race, gender, and zip code. Other students felt somewhat helpless because they recognized the need to revamp the system but did not know how to engender this change. However, audience members felt more optimistic about the success of spreading awareness for the problems after the presentation, especially as Ross reiterated that small steps can lead to big impact.

Ross offered little explanation on a much more controversial subject: should children be charged as adults even for serious offenses? Ross offered plenty of reasons that they should not be due to the poor conditions of juvenile centers. However, he did not address the situation for homicides or similarly weighted crimes. Many students felt that for charges like rape or murder, the juvenile should be held responsible for the “adult” crime and charged as an adult.

Still many more audience members believe that because children are not adults, and do not possess the same mental capacity, they should not be charged as harshly.

History Professor Douglas Monroy was very familiar with the subject matter prior to the talk and was still quite disheartened. He assigned his class to attend the lecture and has been interested in the rise of the incarceration state for a while. He too felt that by spreading awareness, much can be accomplished in fighting the unjustness of the system.

Richard Ross touring the Incarceration Nation exhibit. Photo by Daniel Sarché
Richard Ross touring the Incarceration Nation exhibit. Photo by Daniel Sarché

Monroy believes that children should not be charged as adults for even more serious crimes, as that is an act of vengeance. Many times, juveniles end up in jail for what Monroy describes as “doing something stupid.” While many juveniles detained are dangerous, he agreed with Ross that a line must be drawn.

“What kind of society are we that we treat our less fortunate children in these ways?” Monroy questioned. At one time, a high school education was good enough to get a factory job and be a breadwinner. These kinds of jobs are gone now and for many there is a lack of opportunity.

While many adult detention centers have various programs—such as a program at Colorado Springs’ own recycling plant—to get criminals back into the workforce and give them incentive to hold a job, there is an extreme lack of infrastructure and support for juveniles.

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