Fragile, intimate portraits of California’s imprisoned youth

Fragile, intimate portraits of California’s imprisoned youth
New monograph ‘A Poor Imitation of Death’ documents and humanises the stories of seven young Californian inmates, aged between 16 and 20 years old, who were tried as adults despite being juveniles.

Two decades ago, photographer Ara Oshagan entered Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. He was visiting a detention centre for the first time with documentary filmmaker and teacher Leslie Neale, and despite fighting all of his instincts, Oshagan felt a sense of hesitancy.

“I had a sense of apprehension actually,” Oshagan recalls. “We were going in to photograph these [juvenile] prisoners who were tried as adults, supposedly their crimes were very serious, and they called them violent criminals. We internalise these things, so [I was thinking]: ‘What am I going to run into? Are they going to threaten me? Am I going to be unsafe?’”

But as he began observing and talking to the inmates, he realised that he had it all wrong. The teenagers joked and played around with each other, as millions around the world at that age do, and Oshagan found their demeanours instantly relatable. One boy in particular, called Peter, was reading the Wall Street Journal, before sitting down at the keyboard and playing a note-perfect rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’.

“Literally the night before, I had played the same sonata for my son while I was putting him to bed,” Oshagan continues. “Seeing the same music being played in prison completely shattered this ‘us and them’ thing – these kids are not really that different from my own son, or myself. I could have been in there under different circumstances.”

Efrain, Avenal State Prison, Avenal, 2001

Peter’s story, along with photographs of him that the photographer took, now feature in Oshagan’s soon to be published monograph A Poor Imitation of Death. His is one of seven stories of young Californian inmates, aged between 16 and 20 years old, who were tried as adults despite being juveniles when they were incarcerated, and given extremely long and harsh sentences.

There’s 16-year-old Anait who was given seven years and a first-degree murder charge for driving her friends to a fight where a bystander was stabbed to death, and 20-year-old Sandra who was given 27 years after a phone card registered to her was found at a murder scene. Their stories highlight the real impacts of the USA’s mass incarceration system, and the years of youth lost behind bars for many who had found themselves (sometimes with a stroke of bad luck) on the wrong side of the country’s justice system.

“When you’re young, you try things, you don’t want to listen, you don’t want to be subject to rules and regulations. So if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be imprisoned for 10 years,” Oshagan says. “Being in prison [at a young age] can impact you in a very negative way because the system in there is very ruthless, you have to belong to particular groups and protect yourself against other groups, so it’s this segregated space that can really skew you and how you perceive the world.”

Sandra, Chowchilla state prison, Chowchilla, 2001; Handwritten letter by Sandra, 2002
Handwritten poem by Efrain, 2001; Efrain at his bunk, avenal State Prison, Avenal, 2001
Handwritten poem by Peter, 2001; Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles, 2001

The intimate pictures, taken in black-and-white, form a way of humanising these young prisoners, who spend most of their time wearing identikit jumpsuits and being identified by numbers rather than their names. Printed alongside the pictures are words – writings from the inmates that range from poetry to letters, and quotes taken from conversations with Oshagan – that illuminate their inner personalities, the toughness of life in prison, but also added context about their lives that highlight where a lack of support from a young age had led them into dangerous situations. 20-year-old Liz, for example, was sexually abused by her stepfather from the age of nine, and eventually ran away from home, but was charged with accessory to murder for being present when another person had strangled a teenage woman to death in an abandoned building.

That lack of support is made starker given that the vast majority of those featured in the book are from BIPOC communities. “Even though the USA has 5 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population is in the United States,” Oshagan explains. “In this country that’s got this myth of being a free country, it’s really the exact opposite for certain communities – it’s the country of incarceration.”

Juvenile cell and hallway, Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles, 2001

A Poor Imitation of Death by Ara Oshagan is published by Daylight Books

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