Kid criminals: tagged, tracked and cast off by society

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“My dad left us when I was four or five, and I’ve been estranged from him ever since. Things were rough for my mum trying to raise two boys on her own,” says 28-year-old Zora Murff, whose series Corrections is informed in no small part by his experiences growing up disenfranchised, with a family diminished by low income, lack of opportunity and alcohol abuse.

Born and raised in Des Moines, where one in three children live below the poverty line, Zora could easily have become a write-off. His mother was forced to take jobs out of town at weekends to provide for her two boys, often leaving them unsupervised for many hours. “My brother and I were very close when we were young, and I spent a lot of time following him around, until he got to the age where it wasn’t cool to have your little brother tagging along any more. When that happened, I had to learn to be alone – I started to read a lot and draw.”

As Zora got older – with the distance between he and his brother ever-increasing, and his mum overwhelmed by drink and battling demons of her own – he started to hang out with a crowd of “rough kids” and regularly smoked weed, flying under the radar of law enforcement’s heavy-handed approach to the juvenile misdemeanors of African-American boys.

His mother’s drinking spiraled out of control following the murder of her boyfriend. “Fortunately I wasn’t there to witness it; unfortunately my brother was. I witnessed a lot of pain during the years that followed. I always wanted to help my mum, but I never knew how. Everyone assumed that because I wasn’t getting into trouble with the police and getting good grades at school, I was doing just fine.”

But while Zora evaded America’s criminal justice system, his brother did not, falling prey to a penal system with the highest incarceration rates in the world. One need only watch Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In to get the full picture of America’s iniquitous criminal justice system, where justice is meted out with the imprisonment of young, poorly educated and marginalised black men in disproportionate numbers.

“I was called to serve as a witness at my brother’s trial that would have resulted in his probation. But I feel my testimony contributed to his incarceration; I remember in that moment feeling like I had failed him, that maybe his life might have turned out differently had I been more adamant in my testimony.”

But the sins of the fathers are not always visited on the sons, and while his brother struggled to stay out of prison, Zora – still only a teen himself, believing he’d failed his brother and feeling powerless to help his mum – enrolled in Iowa State University to study psychology. “I think that having to bear all of my family’s pain without anyone to help made me want to advocate for others in need.”

Having completed his degree in 2010, he took a job as a tracker at Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids. “The juveniles in my charge have been convicted of crimes and are ordered to complete probation; they have to comply with services that may include electronic monitoring, therapy, drug screening and community service. Tracking is an alternative to detention, meant to provide rehabilitation, but many influences outside of the youths’ control – education, socioeconomics, race – all play a role in whether or not they reoffend.”

Working with juvenile offenders made him reflect on his own childhood; he’d think back on family cookouts, the disposable cameras his mother bought, how she’d let him finish off the roll, the schoolteacher who told him he could go to Harvard some day, and the long summer days with his older brother. “I came to a point where I was extremely unhappy. I knew I had to make a change, so I started to read about photography – how different photographers use images to tell stories – and I was hooked.” So he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s BA photography programme, working full-time at the detention centre and studying part-time.

Corrections, Zora’s final-year BA project, is born of his commitment to making a thoughtful series about juvenile offenders – about a system that too often fails the disenfranchised youth to whom it has a duty of care. “I asked my supervisor for permission to photograph the kids and she agreed, as long as I concealed their identities. I spent a lot of time looking at work that documented the juvenile justice system, but I knew I would need to bring something unique to the table. So when I started to make portraits, I would use the kids’ bodies or personal objects to obscure their faces.”

In having to conceal their identities, he was forced to consider the role of images in the correctional system – not only how they are used to define individuals who are deemed criminals (and what happens when these definitions are skewed), but also society’s relationship to the images. “When we see a mugshot, for example, we quickly identify what it is and what it means for the individual pictured. We search for information applied to the photograph, specifically the crime committed, as well as any visual cue in the subject’s physical characteristics and demeanor to see if we can suss out their capability to commit the crime.

“By blurring the image to keep the portrait anonymous, I have changed its meaning. It becomes representational of all the people in the same predicament. It also speaks to the lines we draw between juvenile and adult. Kids who have committed crimes are afforded a certain level of privacy – their records are sealed – but once they become an adult, they are no longer afforded that right. The question I raise is, ‘How much has their maturity changed between age 17 and 18?’ When we lock kids away, it’s easy to forget about them, to believe the system will fix them. But the system falls short of its intended goals.

“In many ways, coming to work with these kids seems random, but maybe it was something I was meant to do.”

• This autumn, Zora will embark on his third degree, an MFA in photography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he hopes to continue using image-making to explore the American criminal justice system.

For more of Zora Murff’s work, visit his website.

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