Youth Locked In: Portraits Inside Rhode Island Training School

Text by Katy McCarthy | Photos by AS220 Students, Rhode Island Training School

I suppose the primary difference between a bedroom and a cell is the side of the door the lock is on … and the geographical context. Location, location, location, right? In this case it’s the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile detention facility in Cranston, R.I.

Amid the cinderblock walls and standard-issue wooly gray bed linens, intimate details abound. These may be the cells of kids serving time as opposed to time-outs, but they are still the personal spaces of children.

In one picture a young man holds what looks like a clear plastic portable radio (a significant privilege, I would imagine). On a shelf to his left are two cards addressed “To My Husband.” One of the cards is for father’s day. Somewhere on the other side of this secure space, beyond a tall fence, this boy has a wife and maybe a child or two. Taped to the wall are 4×6 photos of a girl in sepia, black and white and full color. His wife?

For the past 12 years, the AS220 Youth photography program has worked with youth residents at the Rhode Island Training School teaching photo skills through workshops and collaborative projects. Typically, staff and students work together in one big classroom with students posing for and taking photos (I wrote about another project created inside the training school). The portraits above, taken in their cells, give residents the opportunity to work one-on-one with staff. Usually, it’s a staff member pressing the shutter button on the portraits, but the process of getting there is very collaborative. Scott Lapham, AS220’s youth photography coordinator, told me on the phone, “Young people look at this opportunity as a chance to do something personal, all of the compositions are very collaborative. … We talk to youth about how they want to compose the image, how they want their body language to be read, and if there are any other intimate details they wanted photographed.”

In this setting, explained Lapham, these young folks can be “much more personal and much less defensive. … They can be more vulnerable in how they interact with the camera.”

In the photos, the identities of the boys are carefully and artfully masked. The efforts to preserve anonymity are reminiscent of the work of Richard Ross. In conversation, both Lapham and Ross have talked about a commitment to allowing the children in their photographs to participate without forever having their faces associated with their time in detention.

In another portrait, a boy in a blue polo shirt holds a car catalog in front of his face. It is a little something to get lost in, a space to indulge in dreams of a machine to take him somewhere else. At the very top of the frame is a horizontal window through which you can see the edge of a tall fence. I wonder if this boy stood upon his bed, how much of the outdoor world could he see?

If all goes to plan, someday, these young men will hang photos on the walls of their bedrooms, as opposed to cells. They will lock their own doors and glance out their windows at a world in which they can come and go as they please.

For now, he probably can’t see that much. Let’s hope that changes.

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Comments (1)

  1. Devi Arnold

    Hello, I’m Devi Arnold a senior at The Met high school. I have to complete a senior thesis project and I’m thinking of doing a project similar to this. I want to highlight some of the most difficult parts of being a teenager. I’m looking for all different kinds of teenagers who face different kinds of situations.