More than Decoration: Art in Juvenile Prisons

By Katy McCarthy

About the guest blogger: Katy McCarthy is the blog and media director at In 2011, she received her Bachelors degree from University of California, Santa Barbara in studio art. When not in her own studio, she is editing and blogging for Juvenile In Justice. Katy can be reached at

A youth prison in Maryland where many of the cells, referred to as rooms, have chalk board walls free to be drawn on. A California Youth Authority facility where young people serving “juvie life” sentences tack complex photo collages to the walls above their beds and desks. A cell at a detention facility in Multnomah County, Oregon where an 18” painted square on one wall delineates where young inmates can hang photos—all of the other wall space must remain blank. These are all examples of spaces in youth confinement facilities where children are permitted some creative control. My organization, Juvenile In Justice, having documented more than 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, can state with some confidence that the range of visuals/art in the youth prison system is overall pretty bleak.

Art can play a significant role in the process of healing. In the world of health design (Doctor’s offices, hospitals, etc.) there has been a huge movement towards “evidence-based art”– art and design  initiatives with observable health outcomes including shortened hospital stays, decrease in pain medication,  and lowered blood pressure and heart rate. Other important outcomes include patient ratings of perceived pain, satisfaction with services, and economic outcomes. Studies in the last decade have found some amazing correlations between art programs/visuals and reduced anxiety, stress, fatigue, increased pain tolerance and more positive outcomes in surgical procedures. Nature images tend to illicit the most positive responses.

Keeping the insides of youth prisons blank slates is a punitive tactic that falls more into the “scared straight” category. It reads: “You are bad. You do not have the privilege of looking at anything other than monotone walls. You are here to be punished.” This mentality, manifested as sterile walls and anonymous cells, doesn’t jive with me or arts programs research. Studies by the National Arts Education Research Center show that integrating the creative arts into all learning experiences enhances academic, social, and personal developmental outcomes (Ross, 1991). Just last year the Alaska State Council on the Arts, using money from the Percent for Art initiative, put out a call for entries for artists to create interior artwork for the McLaughlin Youth Center (MYC) in Anchorage, Alaska. The stated goals for the project requested art that would calm youth, imply building positive relationships, stability and consistency, and be relevant to teenage boys from diverse backgrounds. It is refreshing to see an institution understanding that art can accomplish these goals. That it serves multiple purposes and will change the environment from one of punishing to one of rehabilitation and concern for well being.

In his intro to Juvenile In Justice, the book we published in August of last year, Ira Glass writes:

“And what do you call the look– the visual aesthetics–  of the jails and prisons we put [kids] in? Going into these places reporting various stories, I’ve learned that usually they are not squalid places. It’s the sterility of these places– the bare, freshly painted concrete walls, the unadorned floor– that makes the truth of what they’re for so obvious and make them so impersonal. These are cages.”

Of course we all want the majority of youth detention centers and prisons shut down. We want more kids diverted to community programs. We want more kids kept out of the system entirely. We want youth prisons to be reserved for the fraction of the youth offender population that poses a public safety risk. But until then, the estimated 60,000 kids falling asleep in cells deserve better than what they have. They deserve art. Art should not be a privilege, it should be considered a fundamental rehabilitative practice.

Below are some photographs taken by Richard Ross as a part of Juvenile In Justice that demonstrate a range of the “visual aesthetics” incorporated and permitted in youth facilities across the country. Sometimes the efforts made to include art are sort of sorry looking. But I can appreciate that start, and encourage more facilities and states to make like Alaska and truly invest in an art and design program that uses evidence-based principles.

The state of visual aesthetics in juvenile justice facilities today:

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All images by Richard Ross for Juvenile-in-Justice