Is Anybody Listening?
’m an expert in storytelling,” Steve Liss told me not long ago. “I’m not an expert in psychology or criminology.” Liss is a photographer for Time who came to Texas in the fall of 1998 to fly around the state with then-governor George Bush. Among their stops was a juvenile jail in Marlin, about 30 miles southeast of Waco. It was a military-type facility, essentially a boot camp that housed adolescent males who had been convicted of violent crimes. “The press was lined up against the wall of a gymnasium and the inmates were marched around. Hup, two, three, four,” Liss recalled. “They went through this whole business, and I thought to myself, ‘This is awful, Why is he parading them around in front of the press?’ This was the most exploitative thing I had ever seen. What in the hell was he doing showing them off to us in the middle of a political campaign? It was a photo op from hell.” Liss took no pictures that day. But he began thinking about a long-term project—not a photo op, not an expose—but something that would open a window onto the realities faced by kids at risk in America. In 2001 he was back in Texas and decided his project should be based in a border town, “the place where so many dreams in this country begin.” Eventually he found a home of sorts in the Webb County juvenile detention facility in Laredo, where he gained remarkable access to kids and parents, as well as to probation officers and others involved in the juvenile justice system. Some of the kids he talked to were accused of violent crimes; others had been caught shoplifting or skipping school too many times. Some were scarred by a complex web of family problems; some were high on anything from carburetor fluid to cocaine and were going through detox in a jail cell simply because there was no adolescent psych unit in Laredo. Some of them would be there for a night, others for months. All of them, he emphasizes, were in detention: They hadn’t been convicted of anything. Laredo would be his case study, but it was hardly the whole story. “What I found in Laredo,” Liss explains, “was a facility where people were, in general, quite compassionate. And yet you had a system that was intrinsically cruel because there weren’t enough options for kids.” The project that began years ago on a fall day in Marlin Texas, has now evolved into No Place for Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention, a remarkable collection of photographs and interviews that will be published this spring by the University of Texas Press. An excerpt appears on pages 8 – 13 of this issue of the Observer. In the foreword to the book, Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., confronts us with a series of questions: “What sort of backward investment policy allows states to spend three times more per prisoner than they do per public-school pupil? What does it say about us that the only thing our nation will guarantee every child is a costly jail or detention cell, while refusing them a place in Head Start or after-school child care, summer jobs, and other needed support?” Which leads to one more question. Steve Liss is indeed an expert storyteller. But now comes the hard part: Is anybody listening? —BB