Rancho Santa Fe photojournalist gives voice to youth in Juvenile Hall

Susan Madden Lankford Photo: Polly Lankford Smith

By Karen Billing

In researching her new book, “Born, Not Raised: Voices from Juvenile Hall,” Rancho Santa Fe resident and photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford visited the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility where she gathered candid thoughts of teens from the questionnaires she was allowed to pass out.

On one of the questionnaires collected, a 17-year-old boy had scribbled a haunting message across the top: “Don’t forget me please.”

Madden Lankford hopes her new book, to be released March 15, will do just that: Raise awareness of the situation that isn’t often given much of a voice.

“We can’t be isolated from these issues,” Madden Lankford said. “I’m very concerned about where we’re headed as a nation.”

Much of the book’s content comes straight from the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility residents themselves, just “kiddos” as Madden Lankford calls them. It also includes interviews with justice professionals, as well as excerpts from child psychologist Dr. Diane Campbell on prevention and early childhood developmental parenting needs.

“Born, Not Raised” exposes the gaps in these children’s development, as well as in the system and offers some possible solutions: “Could the answer be in parenting, education and learning to raise children responsibly in today’s world?” Madden Lankford writes.

The book questions what will happen to the kids who could only read at a fourth grade level once they left the hall only to live in a place with no support or structure.

Madden Lankford’s book is the third in a trilogy of books she’s done taking a closer look at issues such as homelessness, in the book “downTown U.S.A.,” and incarcerated women with her book “Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.”

Madden Lankford has also released a film, “It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing,” that looks at the 75 percent rate of recidivism and the remediation programs that have been successful.

The films and books are produced by her Humane Exposures company that she runs with daughter Polly Lankford-Smith.

Where Madden Lankford is now is a long way from where she began, shooting mostly portraits and doing commercial photography. After renting the old Seaport Village Jail in downtown San Diego for a photo shoot, she became drawn to the homeless in the area and learning about their stories.

“My focus changed…I had to sharpen my own personal view,” Madden Lankford said.

So many of the homeless had dealt with being incarcerated, so she continued her research at the Las Colinas women’s prison, meeting inmates and giving voice to their experiences there.

“I really learned a tremendous amount from them, what it takes for a person to be so far down and out to end up in one of these cells,” Madden Lankford said.

She discovered a majority of the women had children and wondered where they were—that led her to wanting to explore juvenile facilities and child welfare programs.

What she found was shocking, that some 500,000 kids are going in and out of juvenile detention facilities in California every year.

“It’s shameful. There are 120,000 kids on any given day in lockup and what are we really doing about this as a society?”

She visited the Kearny Mesa facility with her daughter, who was then working on an internship in psychology at San Diego State University.

Although Madden Lankford’s daughter had initially gone to the facility to fulfill a six-month requirement for school, she ended up participating in the “moving” experiment with her mother for a year and a half.

Getting in to the facility was a challenge—it took a year to get credentials, they had to take a self-defense program and they were limited in the way they could interact with the juveniles. They were able to hold small group meetings with the females, but their interactions with the boys were more structured—they were allowed to give them questionnaires to fill out and Madden Lankford also gave the teens photos and asked them to comment on what they saw.

Most of the juveniles she dealt with in the hall were ages 14 to 17 and the youngest was 12. They came from backgrounds of homelessness, criminal records, parents who were incarcerated or parents who were on drugs.

Some of the boys were already parents themselves.

For some, the hall was the first place that their world was less chaotic—they had structure in their lives and someone telling them when to go to bed, how to brush their teeth, when they were going to eat.

At first, the Lankfords weren’t sure how they would be received by the juveniles, but once the kids learned they were going to be a part of a book, they worked hard and wanted to show what they knew.

Their syntax and spelling was often incorrect, but their understanding of life was harshly, heartbreakingly accurate.

Reflections included: “I feel like a rat in a cage with nowhere to go but down,” and “I could have a GED because I’m smart but I need someone to help me.”

On a photo of a man napping on the grass in the mountains with a cowboy hat shielding his face from the sun, a 16-year-old wrote: “I see a man that has no prlbms in life, he can just kick back, he does not have to worey about jail or drive bys to see little kids die…it must feel good to be free of the ghtto.” [sic]

A 16-year-old boy wrote that the most memorable event of his past was “seeing his dad sober.”

“It was very poignant, to think that a boy in lockdown, asked a question like that could spout off an answer that was so exactly right on the money,” said Madden Lankford, noting that they were capable of expressing their thoughts in a way that a regular high school student might not. “They’re in a place where they have nothing to lose by telling you the truth.”

She found many of the girls were very proficient at writing, weaving stories about the pictures they saw that reflected their own life experiences, some hopeful and some not. The girls were open and honest in discussions about being angry, their crimes, life in gangs, their hopes for the future and wanting to have children.

A 15-year-old girl described her first memory of her parents fighting, her dad holding a knife to her mother’s throat and her mother holding a shotgun to her father’s head.

“I would like to add that I believe my dysfunctional family was not the sole reason for me turning out the way I have. I’ve had many opportunities to better myself but at the time I was ignorant and took the easy way out,” she wrote.

It was an emotional experience, but Madden Lankford said her hardest day was when she was told they could no longer come back to work with the girls.

“I worried they would think it was another break of trust and failure and how were they going to interpret that,” she said.

By the time these kids get to be in their teens, they’ve had so much trauma, “horrific anger and destruction” and Madden Lankford said there are not enough resources to re-parent troubled kids.

“All it takes is a good enough someone to make a difference in a child,” said Madden Lankford. “But it has to happen early on.”

She hopes that her book will shed light on the issue, raise awareness and possibly prompt change.

Her next step will be developing Humane Smart, a branch of her company devoted to helping at-risk youth achieve a productive life through scholarships and programs that foster connections with mentors and encourage their interests. She envisions one program, which involves the use of animals, to help youth develop empathy and compassion.

“My hope is the kids will really identify with the animals and open their hearts,” Madden Lankford said. “It could be transitional to their relationships with people, giving them strength to get out of gangs.”

To learn more about “Born, Not Raised” visit The book will be available on and