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Voices from the Field

November 1, 2018

New Photo Exhibit Aims to Expose, End, and Rectify CA’s Long Term Sentencing of Children  

By Ise Lyfe 

The United States Juvenile Justice System was established with one fundamental principal: the law should treat children different that adults given their amenability to change. Sadly, that has not been the case. Instead our juvenile justice system has created bridges to nowhere for those most vulnerable in society – our children.

As an Artist, I always have a million ideas swarming through my mind. Your artistic obligation is to act on one of those ideas and express it on the canvas or medium of your choosing. For me, I find it most important to bring forth the work that can fill social voids and start conversations that lead to action and the exposing of inaction and apathy around important issues.

I’ve worked in every form of correctional facility as an educator and or resident artist. It is heavy work, and one of the heaviest experiences is sitting next to a 70 year old man that has been in prison since he was 18 years old, or a young woman serving the first month of a life sentence.

I also experienced the pain of visiting my brother in a California State Prison as a child and teen over the course of an 8-year sentence he served.

What is most apparent to me is the increasing normalization of youth incarceration. Law enforcement, schools, and even families have come to an attitude of just expecting that a fraction of their community, students, or children will go to prison- and possibly for a very long time.

On a social services level it is a gross step beyond expecting, into the realm of anticipating young people being sentenced to prison. That is why I’ve partnered with The California Endowment to curate smallasaGIANT, a conceptual art exhibition that will provide an in-depth view of juvenile incarceration and highlight a major fact: our juvenile justice system is not living up to its founding aspirations. Each year, more than 250,000 youth in the United States, primarily youth of color, are tried, prosecuted and convicted as adults – and their punishments are far worse. The notion of rehabilitation and reform has been completely pushed to the back-burner. In California, over 6,500 youth offenders are incarcerated and more than 5,000 are serving sentences over ten years.

Caifornia recently took a major step to rectifying this situation by passing SB-1391, which bans trying 14 and 15-year-olds as adults. This after the passage of several other laws in recent years that took into account the ability of youth and young adults to rehabilitate – namely SB-260, SB-261, and AB-1308). But even with these improvements, the youthfulness of offenders is taken into account only after 15 – 25 years of incarceration – at which point a young person will have spent the majority of their formative years behind bars. Furthermore, there are still thousands of young people, who instead of being offered a chance to learn and go through a process of true rehabilitation, are languishing behind bars.

The only way to change the system is to continue to galvanize attention around the ineffectiveness of our juvenile justice system and help mobilize our communities to help change policy and practice. This is the ultimate goal of smallasaGIANT.

Through video, photography and written narratives, smallasaGIANT will showcase the stories, struggles, and in the victorious moments of this collective discourse- the triumphs and release of over fifty people who are serving or have served long-term sentences in California’s correctional system. Most importantly, the project will highlight one of our nation’s most egregious crimes: locking children in prison for what basically amounts to their entire lives.

SmallasaGIANT is a tangible tool that, through conceptual art, can be used to empower communities and influence politicians and stakeholders to create change in our juvenile justice system.

It’s time to change the narrative and change the way we treat young people who make mistakes.

For more information visit Small As a Giant.