This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
Lately, so much lip service has been paid to the mistreatment of youth prisoners in American correctional facilities that the alternative to incarceration—probation and electronic monitoring—would seem to anyone like a better option. Juvenile offenders who are arrested, adjudicated, and placed under surveillance are allowed to remain in their communities on the condition that they check all of the right boxes along the way to reform: drug testing, counseling, community service. But very little attention has been paid to the impact that this constant monitoring has on the development of young offenders.
For three years, the photographer Zora J. Murff worked for the Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a "tracker." Murff's role was to supervise and monitor the progress of teenagers trying to correct their behavior during a life stage that's already emotional, transitional, and, in the case of many of Murff's charges, further complicated by socioeconomic circumstances and sometimes addiction. Along the way he began to reconsider his role as a consequence in these children's lives, as well as the role of the camera (used by the criminal justice system for surveillance), and he started to document the relationships between youth, authority, reform, and privacy (or lack thereof).
The result is Corrections, a serious and perceptive study of a life in limbo between incarceration and freedom. The monograph's still lifes, of tracking devices and prison-issued necessities, are presented starkly, giving viewers a glimpse inside the system. Trust emanates from his portraits of the children he supervised, their faces obscured to protect what little privacy they maintained during their period of constant monitoring. They're normal teenagers, in beat-up sneakers and ponytails.
The work challenges our attitudes about these young offenders. We know nothing of their crimes and what they've done in the past, so what we're left to think about is their experience of near constant surveillance, appropriate at a time when the omnipresence of technology and arguments about national security have brought privacy concerns into our daily lives.
Corrections brings up questions about whether surveillance prevents criminal behavior, who it is intended to protect, where it fits in with rehabilitation tools like education or therapy, and about the psychological effect it has on kids.
Imprisonment impacts young people emotionally, but what do we know about this form of freedom? Murff's photos beg us to think about what kind of life these kids have and what sort of future is possible.