When 14-year-old Barney Lee was sentenced to life in prison, he became a human experiment for new theories of penal reform
President Obama, speaking last week at an NAACP convention on the eve of his historic tour of Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institution, outlined the major components of his vision for the future of criminal justice reform. When it came to the issue of juvenile offenders, he called for a shift in perspective: “We’ve got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different. Don’t just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens.”
These comments came after a year of intense national debate about issues surrounding what some have described as the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” including the disproportionate policing of black and Latino minors in urban communities and extensive solitary confinement for juvenile offenders on Riker’s Island. Calls for reform often rely on images of teens the system is said to have failed. But more than 70 years ago, they relied on just the opposite, when one incarcerated youth—confined to one of the country’s most notorious state prisons—became the face of reform.
“The kid is quiet,” the photographer J.R. Eyerman jotted down in his notes as he observed 14-year-old Barney Lee on a summer afternoon in July 1941. “He is very interested in the planes overhead all day from nearby Hamilton Field,” he continued, referring to the new defense compound in Novato, Calif., 25 miles north of where they were stationed. Eyerman had been commissioned to document a day in the teen’s life, and found him—along with marveling at hovering aircraft—filling his time reading books with his tutor, playing with a model ship and throwing a ball around with friends.
Readers who came across Eyerman’s photographs when they were published the following summer in TIME would have found various aspects of Lee’s appearance familiar, his mischievous grin and obediently tucked-in shirt reminiscent of their own sons or nephews. But Barney Lee was no ordinary adolescent. Several months prior to Eyerman’s shoot, a California court found him guilty of murdering his uncle, a farmer from Salinas in California’s Central Valley. According to responding officers, Lee fatally shot his uncle after being scolded for neglecting his farm chores. The judge who presided over Lee’s case sentenced him to five years to life in prison, earning him the title of the youngest “lifer” in California history. When Eyerman watched him playing baseball and eating dinner in a cafeteria, he did so from inside the walls of San Quentin, which Lee now called home.
Lee might have been the youngest teenager to receive a life sentence, but he was not the first. Two teenagers, one 15 years old and the other 16, had once called San Quentin their lifelong home. The fact that Lee was living alongside some of California’s most violent criminals was not unprecedented, either. In 1941, California counted itself among a handful of states that made no distinction between those convicted of murder, no matter their age. Teenagers shared cells with inmates of all ages, an arrangement that reflected a larger penal philosophy known as the “custodial model,” which emphasized discipline, direct surveillance and physical punishment. According to this model, the inmate’s identity—young or old, black or white, female or male—no longer mattered, for it was eclipsed by a crime committed against a society eager for retribution.
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