The Sacred Space of Childhood

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The American notion of childhood is one of a space that exists separately from the polluted and tangled business of adult life. In reality, the experience of childhood is as varied as any other on the scale of human existence. But, since World War II this idea that children deserve a chance at an unpolluted childhood has been central to America’s ideology. Our tolerance for the violation of this sacred space is low. The interruption of this space has become an important theme for me in this work.

In searching for visual strategies for this larger incarceration and community project, I wanted to tap into that potential outrage felt by everyday people who deeply believe in an unpolluted childhood space.

I was documenting a day care program run by Friends and Families of Incarcerated People, a D.C. based nonprofit,  that serves children affected by incarceration. The daycare was located in the basement of an apartment building in Southeast D.C.  After a lesson, the kids gathered outside for a trip to swimming pool. Once the chaperons gathered all the children, they began to walk towards the bus stop a few blocks away.  One of the little girls spotted bluish-green glass shards spread on the asphalt and sidewalk adjacent to one of the teacher’s car. The glass had spread through the front passenger seat and on to the floor board.  The daycare instructor’s vehicle had been broken into the previous evening. She asked what happened to the window.

This image stands out to me because it combined the violence of a smashed car window with the sacred space of childhood. I watched her as she opened her thin arms, then I made a picture. In the moment of witnessing her reaction I was touched by the simple question she asked, Why? The explanation was short and technical. Someone broke into the car to steal a music player. The kids wrestled with the reality of what that meant. Their level of understanding was one thing I could not photograph, but the intersection of crime and the innocence of youth radiate throughout this moment.

This is even more poignant because this group of children, whether it’s a simple walk to catch a bus to the pool or any other act of daily life, must navigate a community that has been stripped of it’s fathers and mothers.

An estimated 60,000 Washington D.C. residents have criminal records. Nearly 8,000 returning citizens are released back into the city each year after serving sentences in prison or jail. The aftermath of the War on Drugs has had serious impact on children in the economically depressed communities of “nation’s capital.” At some point in many of their lives, they will lose one or both of their parents due to incarceration.

East Austin Teens

Chelsea Shorts
Chelsea Shorts

Chelsea, 17, and Andre Shorts, 16, leave their home and walk a short distance to a bridge that crosses a creek in their East Austin neighborhood. As they approach, they spot four of their friends laughing and joking on the bridge railings. The concrete creek bed is nearly bone dry. The fragile trickle of water is a grim reminder of the ongoing drought battering central Texas. The banks of the creek are angled. There’s a chain-linked fence, lining the top on both sides of the rivulet to keep people out. Near a pedestrian bridge that crosses the stream, Andre and Chelsea pull back a corner of the fence and climb down into the creek. It’s Saturday, so they go on their ritual walk, which on some days can extend for several miles.

They stop for a break near a place they have nicknamed the “steps.” The creek’s smooth high-angled walls turn into a series of large steps made of small rocks kept in place by a wire mesh. This is where the Shorts and their friends often hang out. It is a hidden place and it offers a refuge obscured from view of the street. Having place like the “steps” is crucial for these teenagers as they navigate their surrounding neighborhood, which they affectionately call the “ghetto.” The groups of teenagers walk aggressively, their heads constantly pivoting from left to right, scanning for trouble. They leave the “steps” to walk to their next hangout place. The sound of a car driving past echoes in the creek. A glass bottle tossed from the car shatters just a few feet away from Andre. Everyone jumps from the sound of the glass exploding on the concrete. “That was crazy,” he says stunned, before adding: “A lot of stuff like that happens.”

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The Shorts and their friends experience life differently than some of the their classmates at Austin High School, which is 5 miles away from their neighborhood in a different area code. They live in the 78721 zip code of Austin, which has some the highest prison admission rates and one of the highest concentrations of poor minority residents. Their biological father has been absent most of their lives. They only recently reconnected after his release following a decade and a half in prison.

A website called the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections produced by the Justice Mapping Center reports that in the 78721 zip code, the prison admission rate is 22.61 per 1,000. Overall for Travis County the prison admission rate is 4.10 per 1000. Across Interstate 35 in the more affluent 78746 zip code, the numbers are very different. The prison admission rate is .19 per 1,000.25 Teens who live in this area refer to it as the “Two-One,” after the zip code.

Chelsea and Andre live with their parents and siblings at their grandparents’ small house near Airport Boulevard and Springdale Avenue. Andre and Chelsea’s mother Janie Perez and their stepfather Joe Perez are very active in their lives. Janie and Joe often have been Andre’s advocates when he got in trouble at school.

 Chelsea Shorts, 17, set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Chelsea Shorts, 17, set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Andre and Chelsea are more fortunate than other children in the East Austin community. They have a family unit supporting their goals. Often, that support is only emotional, because the family’s financial resources are limited. But it is consistent and it makes a difference. Andre and Chelsea share a cramped bedroom. Every inch of their room is used. A bunk bed takes up most of the space, leaving a narrow walkway and a corner for the TV and video game system. Their house has become the official hangout spot for their group of friends. Chelsea says that at times they fit 6 or 8 of their friends in their bedroom. Their parents are happy that they gather at home, because they know that they will be safe. Being “here it’s like a vault, so we lock it down and we’re good,” Andre says.

Once they leave their homes and enter the streets, Andre says they have to be more vigilant in that environment. “When it starts to get dark at night you have to kick in your survival skills. My senses just get better because I’m about to go out there and I have to be ready for anything,” Andre says. Safely walking down a street in your own neighborhood, a fact that many teenagers from other parts of the city might take for granted, creates added stress for teenagers in East Austin. They are forced to live in a constant state of hyper awareness, always alert for bad situations that could lead to trouble. “You got to be careful around here because there are people that even see a little bit of money in your pocket will cause a lot of jealousy and hatred,” Chelsea says. “You got to keep two eyes open, one in front and one in the back.”

The kitchen in their home is bright because of the lime green walls. Chelsea sits at a table watching her family members move in and out of the room. She reflects on the challenges that she and her brother face as at-risk youth. “I probably am in the category of youth with a higher statistic [of] being arrested or as a female being pregnant at this age or doing drugs,” she says.

“The hood can be a black hole and if you let it suck you in then you’re just going to come out like everybody else. Stuck,” Chelsea says. “It gets harder and harder for you to dig yourself out of that hole.”

 The children of incarcerated parents have a much higher chance of becoming high school drop-outs, committing juvenile offenses, and becoming incarcerated themselves, according to a report from the Sentencing Project called “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children.” The study also concludes that since 1991 there has been an 82 percent increase in the number of children with imprisoned parents. Nationally, 1 in 43 American children have a parent in jail. The numbers become more extreme when they are broken down by race. For whites, 1 in 111 children have a parent imprisoned and for blacks it is 1 in 15.

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Chelsea opened the screen of the back door and stepped into the backyard. Twenty steps later she cracks open the door of grey tool shed. There she has constructed a makeshift studio in the old structure that belongs to her stepdad. Inside she has set up a blank paint canvas, an airbrush kit and a few other artist supplies. Chelsea dreams of being an artist and owning her own business. “When you’re painting, you can paint the world however you want the world to be. I feel like when I’m creating art there are no limitations, I just have unlimited freedom,” she says.

Andre has dreams of life 3,000 feet above ground, as a pilot. He imagines that flying a plane would be like crowd surfing at a concert. “When you’re in the air nothing can stop you. It feels like your on top of the world literally cause you’re just so high and you can see everything and there nothing in the way up there,” he says. Feeling constrained, their dreams reach for freedom. Andre stays connected to his dream through the Internet. He watches the web stream of students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida training to fly. But he feels alone in his dream about becoming a pilot. As he sits on his bed near his laptop he laments, “no one is really mentoring me or helping me to get to that goal. It’s just me.”

His parents wish the best for him but do not have a lot of experience with attaining the advanced education needed to become a pilot. Andre’s stepfather did not go to college and is busy trying to help the family survive. His mother just wants him to graduate from high school and go to college. “They’re coming from a neighborhood where opportunities are easy to see when you’re at school. You have other folks that are trying to support you. When you see that and come back to a neighborhood where the environment is not so good, they loose sight of that,” Joe stepdad Joe laments. says.

The lack of support and social and cultural capital can leave children without the resources and information needed to thrive in American society. “You see it a lot in kids just giving up, they don’t understand exactly how the [environment] affects you, they just assume that I’m done with and that there is nowhere for them to go,” Janie says reflecting on the struggles that her children and their friends from East Austin face.

A child growing up in a community trapped in the cycle of incarceration is damaged in many visible ways. They are also hurt in psychological ways, including a low-self esteem. Judge Charlie Baird says that mass incarceration has had a devastating effect on the young men and women from poor African American communities that are the frontlines in America’s War on Drugs. “I think they sense that their value to our society is not great as it is for an Anglo child. I think it demeans them, I think it demoralizes them and I think that their attitude rather than saying I’m going to prove society wrong, could be just to capitulate to what society expects” he says.

Their American Dream denied, they have low expectations for themselves and even less for their community. This lost generation of young people is being targeted for failure before they can even get a start in the world.

Interview: Ana Yáñez-Correa

In the fall of 2011, I interviewed the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, executive director, Ana Yanez-Correa for a story on effects of incarceration and families.

“There are a lot of people who should not have been put in prison to begin with, especially people with substance abuse problems. We really have to be careful that we are not throwing away human beings.” -Ana Yanez-Correa

 

Dads of Booker T.

Each Thursday, a group of adults meet at the recreation center at the heart of Booker T. Washington Terrace Public Housing Complex in Austin, Texas, for an adult bible study. On this evening, Terrence Jefferson and Jauque Knight sit around the table with other members who live in the community.

Bibles rest on the table as members listen, understanding the difficulties that the others face on a daily basis. The hum of children’s laughter echoes through a plastic curtain that separates the men from the kids’ study groups.

Both men have lived in Booker T. Washington most of their lives, with the exception of the time spent in prison for crimes committed in their youth. Religion has been a key factor in their turnaround.

“So many of our youth are lost to the streets,” Jefferson said. When he reflects on what is happening to the youth in his community he says we only need to “look down in Travis County (jail), look down in Gardner-Betts (juvenile center), look toward Huntsville (penitentiary), that where you’re going to find ever last one of them.”

Jefferson is now a Christian rapper whose stage name is Slim Gotti. He says that then he was growing up, Booker T. Washington was “notorious” for drugs and gang activity.

Jefferson and Knight both sold drugs in their East Austin neighborhood in the early 1990’s. Now both men believe that their earlier actions helped destroy their community, which has been devastated by incarceration.

They are trying to repair some of the damage they inflicted on their neighborhood by working to provide guidance to the boys in the community without father figures.

 

Behind the Image: A Basketball and a Tall Fence

Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, LA.
Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, LA.

Faceless and nameless, a group of teenage boys scattered around a basketball court. The rubber soles of their tennis shoes screeched as they scrape the concrete. The boys taunted each other, challenging their defender to stop their advancement to the basket. If someone heard their voices from outside, the sounds might remind them of all the hope that youth offered.  As I watched the drama unfold in front of me, I thought at this very moment this scene must be replicating itself in neighborhoods across America. Except on this court the unscalable metallic walls that surrounded the play area stretched at least 20 feet into the sky, topped by another chain-linked fence angle in a 45 degree angle towards the court. These boys could not leave this place. They are prisoners.

I had traveled to New Orleans to attend a non-profit photography workshop. While doing research on the area, I found Friends and Family of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a non-profit that provides support to families of incarcerated children. They agreed to let me make pictures of their organization’s efforts to help families and children caught in the system.

The strangely named Youth Study Center is the juvenile detention Center for Orleans parish. The YSC is a short-term facility meant for short stays. The youths that are held there are often awaiting court dates before being transferred to other facilities. The detention center flooded during hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2013, at the time I made this picture, the area surrounding the facility looked like a war zone. The roads were filled with potholes that could fit full-sized grocery carts. A mix of badly damaged structures and homes that were slowly being rebuilt stood in the nearby residential neighborhood that paralleled the YSC.

Access to these closed places is often difficult. Especially when they involved underage children in the legal system. I was allowed to photograph only if I asked permission of each child first and I could not show their faces. The outdoor space where the basketball court was located was important to FFLIP because they had assisted in a lawsuit that forced YSC to build the space for the children to play.

I wrapped around the court photographing the boys, trying to find angles that did not show their faces. The challenge I faced was showing that this was not a normal basketball court. I needed to elevate this simple activity to express meaning that would touch the soul of anyone that viewed the image. The sky that day was deep blue and the individual clouds floated heavily overhead. I stood at the far end of the basketball court against the direction the boys would be facing the majority of the time. I raised the angle of lens high so I could capture the scene and waited for the a moment to happen with boys at the bottom of the picture.  For a fraction of a second, the boys aligned into a triangle pattern on a half court basketball hoop overhead. The picture stood out to me because of it quite simplicity. The boys positioned at the bottom of the frame reminded me of a pawn on a chessboard.

Regardless of the offense, these children have been caught in a set of complex systems much larger than themselves. It becomes easier for us as a society to dismiss children, once we consider the individual actions that lead to their incarceration. But in this case only viewing, the low-hanging fruit of individual responsibility is deceptive.

In this image, I see the slow suffocation of youth. Their sadness, like a slow dripping faucet, leaks back into the lives of the juvenile’s families and their communities. The collective pool formed by their lost American Dreams gathered in silence.

The Browns, Part 3

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A personal choice

From her couch, Beverly again looks out the window. She says the image of a rock rolling down a hill comes to her mind. “It is just like [with] each roll the problem gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” she says with a loud clap of her hand. “More and more families are being affected, I mean even the distinguished black families in the community are being touched [by mass incarceration].”

Beverly’s eyes move back up to her wall of memories and they express the sadness and helplessness at what has happened to her family.

“I watched my mother die praying for God to let her live to see a drug and alcohol free generation that would not be going in and out of jails and prisons. Needless to say, it did not happen. So then I took up her prayer, while I’m 64-years-old now so. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I don’t think I’m going to live to see it either,” she says.

After observing her community for so long, Beverly senses that there is something more happening and that it’s more than a “generational curse.” What she has not been fully able to pinpoint is the reason that her family and community have felt the impact of the criminal justice system so intensely. Perkinson writes that mass incarceration has little to do with crime prevention and is actually rooted in America’s historical racial conflict. “State punishment has consistently served purposes beyond crime control. Indeed, the strong-arm of the law has been regularly deployed not only to protect public safety but to preserve privilege, bolster political fortunes, and, most of all, to discipline those on the social margins, especially African Americans,” he wrote.

She believes that a person has to want to change and that the blame for the poor state of the black community in East Austin should fall on the individuals who live there. It has not been easy. Trying to keep her family together has been stressful for Beverly and it has created some resentful feelings toward her brothers and children, especially the men. “One thing that I have to deal with on a regular basis is that to a degree, I stay mad at them. Because I don’t understand why they can’t want for themselves what I want for them so bad,” Beverly says.

Beverly disagrees with the “blame the white man” explanation for the state of East Austin’s African-American community. She acknowledges the negative impact of the War on Drugs,, but she also believes that the community should develop its solutions and not rely on others to fix the problems. “I don’t even look at it as being about black and white. It’s about what we are doing to ourselves and of course nobody’s going to try to stop us,” she says. But it is not that simple in Beverly’s mind. “From a certain point you have to believe that they pick who they want to arrest,” she says.

Last year Beverly’s brother John was released from prison after 15 years. John, who had lost access to medication for a bi-polar disorder after being released, was in trouble again four weeks later. “To me they shouldn’t have just turned him loose. The whole world was different. He didn’t have a job or a driver’s license. He didn’t have nothing,” she stresses. Now he is facing a 10-year term for robbery. “I know that there are things that wasn’t offered to him that if he lived on the other side of town he would have gotten,” she says.

Alexander presents a more nuanced view of personal responsibility and mass incarceration. She says that the belief held by many people, including the Browns, is that African Americans choose to be criminals and that the War on Drugs did not turn them into criminals the same way that slavery and Jim Crow turned blacks into second class citizens.

“The myth of choice here is seductive, but it should be resisted. African- Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct,” she wrote.

Beverly points at a photograph on her wall that holds special significance. A row of black people wearing suits and dresses stare out from this old and fading black and white photograph. “Those are the some of the original members who started my church,” she says.

Beverly has attended Rock Quarry Missionary Baptist Church all of her life. Her great-grandfather, William McKinnely Walker, a freed slave, help found the church 135 years ago. Members of her family have attended ever since. In Rock Quarry’s auxiliary building, a group gathered to share a holiday dinner.

Four generations of women from Beverly’s family, Bebe, Marquis, and Raven, 9, talk over a table covered in a red plaid-patterned tablecloth. Marquis hands Beverly an iPod ear bud and they listen to music together. Volunteers prepare full plates of brisket, ribs, baked beans and potato salad, in the kitchen area. Before the food is served everyone bows their heads for prayer.

Three times, Beverly had tried unsuccessfully to break her addiction to drugs. “You can’t do it alone,” her mother told her. Rock Quarry’s Missionary society helped her when she was in need. The group was made up of older Christian women from her church. Whenever she needed emotional support, Beverly could call them anytime of day. Her church and her faith have played a central role in her life and remain one of the primary reasons she was successful in breaking her addiction to drugs.

Read the first chapters Part 1 and Part 2