Feb. 29 2012 12:04 PM

Susan Lankford exposes the juvenile-justice system in 'Born, Not Raised: Voices from Juvenile Hall'

Illustration by "Bramble," a 17-year-old detainee at Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility

Last week, Polly Lankford Smith followed her mother, sociological photographer Susan Madden Lankford, on a tour of the McAllister Institute, a drug treatment center in El Cajon. They walked into a detoxification room, where a man was coming down off drugs.

“This person fires back, ‘Hey, Susie Lankford! How are you?'” Polly says. “It was—wow. He gave her a big hug.”

The man was the widower of a woman who had died of a drug overdose. Previously, the man's wife had worked as a source on two of Susan's books, Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, a documentary treatment of the Los Colinas Detention Facility, and downtown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless, which examined San Diego's homeless population.

“I would one day love to be good as her,” Polly says about her mom. “It's not just powerful, it's very touching to see her in action.”

The detox-facility visit took Polly back more than 10 years, when, as an undergraduate studying psychology, she was allowed to accompany her mother into the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility for internship credit. Together, they engaged juvenile detainees in exploring the anger and desperation that pulls them into the criminal-justice system. The work will be released March 15 in Born, Not Raised: Voices from Juvenile Hall, the final chapter in Susan Lankford's exploration of poverty and crime in San Diego.

“The homeless led me to the jails, the jails led me to the children, and then I discovered it was a cycle,” she says. “It's a cycle that doesn't get any better. It just ends up in our sewer. Until we can start to uncover where these real problems emanate from, and until we can start having solid parenting skills for our young parents today, this is only going to get worse.”

Unlike her earlier work, Born, Not Raised is less photojournalism and more ethnography, using unconventional means to root out the problems and personalities in the San Diego juvenile-justice system. The text is packed with interviews with justice professionals—from child psychologists to probation officers—who provided frank and bleak observations that leave little room for hope for detainees once they've entered the system. There isn't much original photography in the book, due to the confidentiality issues of dealing with juvenile subjects; instead, the pages are filled with content created by the juveniles themselves. Together, the Lankfords crafted psychological questionnaires for the detainees; the kids' chicken-scratched answers were raw and brutal, revealing not only their emotions but also how the education system has failed them.

“I realy don't Remember my chidhood because I've tried so hard to block it out,” one 16-year-old detainee writes in the book. “The earliest memory I have is at the age of 11 when I was malested by my grandfather.”

The kids talk about victimization, but also their priorities, which are as often about the pursuit of drugs, sex, money and prestige as they are about finishing school.

“The syntax can be lousy, the spelling and the way that they word things can be awkward, but their message is right on target,” Susan says.

Frequently, the juveniles answer not in words, but crude, stick-figure drawings of gun violence and casual sex. The Lankfords also picked out images, many from postcards and art prints found at the Del Mar bookstore where they discussed their plans, and asked the kids to write their interpretations.

Describing one image of an older woman with a younger woman at a table, a 15-year-old girl writes: “I think she tuch tis picture becase that's her family and I wish I was in that picture.”

“There's tremendous anger under the skin of these kids,” Susan says. “They've been traumatized so many different times, they don't know how to trust, and because they haven't been loved, they don't know how to love. That's a place in society where we have to start.”

From the very first moment, Susan says, the facility felt like an asylum where the main lesson kids learn is how to be locked up.

“You see the concrete and the bars and the glass and the steel, and you hear the clanking—and the smell!” Susan says. “The smell smells like the first time I went into a children's hospital way back when I was a kid and had my tonsils removed. It's just a smell you never forget, that mixture of the kitchen and cleaning materials and food stuffs that are slapped down on trays. It's not what you want to teach kids.”

Susan Madden Lankford
Photo by Polly Lankford Smith

In the book, Susan recounts the long and tedious process of getting into the Kearny Mesa facility, from convincing the public defenders and probation department staff to partaking in a mandatory three-day self-defense training course, which, thankfully, never needed to be used. The Lankfords formed almost therapeutic relationships with the adolescents—seeing some return to the facility again and again for repeat violations—only to have their access cut off abruptly by juvenile staff with little explanation.

That may be the most important part of the text; the San Diego County Probation Department doesn't allow media or public access to its facilities except for once-a-year, highly controlled open houses. The department cites confidentiality issues, but Susan believes opacity only worsens the problem.

“I think [confidentiality] is the biggest joke around, because all of these kids know each other, they learn everything bad that they possibly can from one another before they're released and they come back in with even more criminal behavior,” Susan says. “That's one of the things I am upset with, because I don't think accountability happens with confidentiality.”

Susan hopes the book is balanced in such a way that it shocks the reader into action, but not enough that they put it down, unable to face the ugliness. The experience certainly changed her daughter's life; Polly went on to study graphic design to help give voice to the voiceless through her mother's books.

“It was really an incredible education for me,” Polly says, explaining that she had trouble relating to the kids at first, because she grew up with a positive, drug-free household. “Their thoughts and feelings were so laid out for us on paper. They were so honest and so real. It's [an honesty] I haven't come across with my neighbors or my closest friends. With these people, they just have nothing to lose.”

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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