Edward, age seventeen, 1999: Edward has been in the system since he was twelve. He’s been arrested for numerous offenses, from possession of beer at school to auto theft. Now he’s been sentenced to twelve years in San Quentin for raping a minor. Edward is currently in San Jose Juvenile Hall’s maximum-security B-8 Unit for violent and high-risk youths.
In discussions of justice in America, talk of punishment and retribution dominates. There is little interest in offering criminals, even juveniles, a second chance. But Joseph Rodríguez’s story makes a strong argument for the possibility of redemption.
As a teenager in the late sixties, Rodríguez was incarcerated at Riker’s Island in New York City for harassment. After his release, he became a heroin addict — and then a thief, to support his habit. He was sent back to Riker’s for robbing a small grocery store. He came out a second time determined to beat his addiction.
Rodríguez went to a free methadone clinic and moved out of the neighborhood where he’d gotten into trouble. The Family of Man, a book of photographs by photographers from around the world, inspired him to buy a camera. He took a workshop at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and started taking pictures everywhere he went — until he got mugged, and the camera was broken. Undeterred, he attended New York City Technical College through an affirmative-action program and later went to the International Center of Photography, where he cleaned darkroom sinks in exchange for a chance to attend classes.
Rodríguez is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in Time, Life, and National Geographic. His book East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA (powerHouse Books) was a critical and popular success in a genre — photography books — that rarely garners much attention. He still lives in Brooklyn, where he grew up.
Rodríguez’s latest book, Juvenile (powerHouse Books), documents the lives of incarcerated youths in California’s juvenile-justice system. But Rodríguez doesn’t just photograph the boys and girls behind bars. He follows them back into their communities as they try to find jobs, get an education, and raise their children. Many fail because they can’t stay off drugs, are overwhelmed by college-admissions paperwork, or don’t know you have to call in sick when you can’t show up for a job.
Rodríguez’s photographs demonstrate how precipitously close to disaster these young people live. “All kids make mistakes,” he says. “The difference is that if you’re in the middle or upper class, you have a wider safety net to catch you when you fall.”
Thanks to Maria Finn Dominguez for bringing the work of Joseph Rodríguez to our attention.
I was surprised, when reading about Joseph Rodriguez in your May 2004 issue, to see the book The Family of Man mentioned. I felt as if I had run into an old friend.
Growing up in the 1950s, when everyone feared nuclear war and air-raid sirens were an everyday fact of life, I spent hours looking at the photographs of human faces in that book. My father had bought it for us, while others were building bomb shelters. I would sit and stare at those people, wondering who they were and where they lived. Seeing our shared humanity so vividly depicted, I could not believe that people from different parts of the world would destroy each other.
Many years later, when I thought I was in love with an ex-Navy SEAL, I bought him a copy, thinking that he would see in it what I did. When we separated, I noticed the book tossed in a corner, unopened.
Now I keep that copy by my bed and look at it often. I still believe that the humanity expressed in those photographs will guarantee our safe passage into the future.
Jane WuchinichEast Glacier Park, Montana
You people are a bunch of wackos. Your left-wing rhetoric is a significant threat to the way we all live. Needless to say, I love it.
I especially liked Joseph Rodriguez’s photo essay on the juvenile-justice machine [“Juvenile,” May 2004] and the Readers Write on “Second Chances” in the same issue. I am twenty-one and have been incarcerated for four years. I was arrested on my seventeenth birthday on fifty-six felony counts and am currently serving a fifteen-year sentence for robbery, kidnapping, and illegal use of a firearm. Since my arrest, I have been prescribed a psychotropic medication and have started taking college correspondence courses toward a BA in English and creative writing. This is my second chance.
Knowing what I know about Youth Authority prisons, I have immense respect for the people Rodriguez profiled. I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned ex-cons return quickly to life behind bars, but a good number of us are getting our second chance on the other side of the wall.
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