Girls Locked Up: What Words Can't Explain


Today, I came across a link to a story that no one wants to hear.  Columnist, Mike Fritz, gave us a sneak peak at a photo essay on life inside a juvenile detention center for girls.  Richard Ross, the photographer, collaborated with girls in detention centers across the nation on the best way to represent their truths.  Although challenged by the need to shield their faces, their mission was accomplished.  Against the stark institutional backdrops, the pictures reveal heartache, invisibility, and strength.  

These pictures took me back to my first job as a child care worker in a residential setting with “behaviorally disturbed” adolescent girls.  Although it’s been 30 years, I still remember their names, their faces, and their stories.  It doesn’t take long to understand that girls’ behavior, characterized as “disturbed” and “antisocial,” is often a logical response to the trauma they have experienced in their lives.  

Studies reveal that 50-90 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced some type of trauma in their lives.  The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among these girls is about eight times higher than rates in community samples.  Of course, not all girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced the type of victimization suggested by these statistics, and described by Fritz and Ross, but it certainly is a common thread in their life narratives.  Girls’ incarceration in the type of places depicted in Ross’ pictures only exacerbates their fear and isolation.  

Because girls only account for 13 percent of youth in residential care across the nation, their stories are ignored in juvenile justice conversations.  But, Robert Ross heard their stories and captured them in his powerful photos.  I like to think that Ross, through his work with these girls, brought a little slice of humanity into an otherwise inhumane place.  And I like to think that his work will capture the hearts and minds of those who need to hear what these girls have to say.  

About the author: A former probation officer, Dr. Betsy Matthews devotes much of her scholarly work to women in the criminal justice system. She the program coordinator, as well as an associate professor for, the EKU Online Corrections program.  

Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2013). Female offenders:  Girls, women, and crime.  Los Angeles: Sage.   
Fritz, M. (March 17, 2015). Life inside a juvenile detention center for girls.  PBS Newshour. Retrieved March 18, 2015 from 
Sickmund, M. and Puzzanchera, C. (2014).  Juvenile offenders and victims:  2014 National report. National Center for Juvenile Justice: Washington, DC.

Published on April 30, 2015