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.
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.
This blog serves as a space to contextualize and explore mass incarceration in America