Still hundreds of miles away in their village, Oscar’s parents didn’t know he was in prison for stealing bus fares.

A small and painfully shy boy, Oscar would nearly burst into tears whenever he could summon the courage to look me in the eye. Despite being arrested for a petty crime, Oscar had little hope of making bail or getting an early release.

There are 1.4 million children in prison around the world. Each one is a child – just like Oscar. Each one has a story. But they are locked behind cement walls, chain-linked fences, police dogs, armed guards, and iron bars – just like Oscar. Their stories are locked away, too, far from our comfortable lives. Telling their stories is powerful. It is the first step to their freedom.

Rene: One Happy Day
Rene hadn’t seen his sister or mother in the two month since he was arrested. He turned 18 while in detention. He was the first boy in detention whose family we contacted for the Family Reunification Project.

When we arrived at the detention center the sister and mother waited anxiously for Rene to be brought from his cell. Finally, he walked down the chain link fence walkway. His sister started to cry. They hugged and held each other. Soon they were laughing.

Julio: Eleven months waiting
Julio is 17 and has been in detention for 11 months waiting for a trial. The police picked up Julio and Rene together one day. The police took Julio to an abandoned housing development and put a plastic bag over his head. They tortured him. He thought he was going to die.

Then he was sent to detention. Julio is adamant that he was not in the fight. Today was the first time Julio had hugged his mother since his harrowing arrest. “My son is innocent,” she stated. She is still nervous. Julio’s trial is in two weeks and the lawyer told them that “we’re going for all or nothing.” Her voice bordered on panic. Shortly after meeting Julio, he was found not-guilty at trial and released.

Carlos: Joy through adversity
Carlos is 18 years old. He was arrested for stealing some bicycles and already had five months in the detention center.

His mother is an important economic support for this family. She sells burritos from her home so that she can care for one of her children who has a disability. But despite having an income, she did not have enough resources to visit her son in one of the worst moments of his life. She was accompanied by her daughter, Carlos’s sister. Despite their difficulties, the family did not stop laughing and hugging. Carlos was already released, after a 6-month sentence that caused him to regret his actions since he could not help his loved ones financially from prison. Carlos was released soon after we met him.

Luis: Abandoned and in prison
Luis is 19-year-old. He has been in prison for one year and eight months. It’s been five months since Luis received a visitor. For the Family Reunification Project, we tried to contact his family. Nobody answered the phone. When we drove to the address listed, nobody was there. He didn’t seem very surprised.

Luis will get out of detention in a year. Without family support, considering the trauma he has experienced, a successful re-entry to society is difficult to imagine.

Oswaldo: An unfortunate family reunion.
Oswaldo was 17 years old. He had been in detention for one year and seven months. Before he was arrested, he had lived with his grandmother. Oswaldo had a difficult relationship with his mother and his step-father. His family hadn’t seen him, hadn’t hugged him for five months. We called Oswaldo’s family to coordinate their ride into the city from their village. They were so excited.

A few days later, Oswaldo had misbehaved and had his visitations revoked as punishment. Once we arrived in Chihuahua for the project we received a call from Oswaldo’s aunt. Oswaldo’s mother had died unexpectedly and the detention director would not authorize Oswaldo to leave and attend the funeral.

Rather than pay for bus tickets for Oswaldo’s family to visit him in detention, we paid for a hearse to bring Oswaldo’s mother’s body to the detention center. Only his grandmother was allowed to accompany the casket. Oswaldo cried. He refused to believe it was actually his mother. Two weeks later Oswaldo received some good news. He was granted conditional release. He is now at a community-based institution receiving job training.

The Exhibit
“Every Child Has A Story” is a dynamic and powerful photographic documentation of the stories from Juvenile Justice Advocate International’s work in the juvenile detention centers in Mexico. The photos and stories of these children and their families offer a personal look into the struggles and injustices faced by so many in Mexico’s criminal justice system.

“Every Child Has A Story” was unveiled at Juvenile Justice Advocates International’s Annual Celebration on October 13th, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the next two years, the “Every Child Has A Story” exhibit was presented at over 12 events in Minneapolis, Washington DC, Mexico City, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Geneva, Switzerland and Paris, France with exposure to more than 5,000 people. These included government officials, human rights advocates, juvenile justice officials, and the World Congress on Justice for Children at UNESCO in Paris, France.