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One Photographer’s Experience Documenting Mentally Ill Inmates

An inmate on max assault status and 23-hour lock down talks to himself in his cell. Max assault status is issued to inmates who have attacked officers or treatment staff. The inmates have been known to throw a mixture of feces and urine, spit, hit, kick, punch or cut. Photos by Jenn Ackerman.

What happens to someone suffering from mental illness after they commit a crime? Are they treated for their illness during their incarceration? Is their treatment sufficient or will they be sent back to the streets without the necessary help to prevent future damage?

With the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and countless others before, the treatment of mental illness has become a highly debated national issue. The conversation has largely been about prevention, treating the mentally ill before they commit a crime. But what happens after the crime is committed? What is the prison system like for the mentally ill and the people responsible for managing them?

Minneapolis photographer Jenn Ackerman set out to find out the answers to these questions. For her project Trapped, she spent months in the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) of the Kentucky State Reformatory to learn about the experiences of the mentally ill confined in the prison system.

According to Ackerman, nearly 25 percent of prisoners in Kentucky suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other equally serious mental health problems. Larry Chandler, the warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange told Ackermann, “We are the surrogate mental hospitals now.”

“I saw them cry. I saw them hit themselves so hard in the head that they bled. I saw them throw their feces at the officers. …For most of these men, they have been outcasts of society and rarely heard. So they had a chance to share their story and have someone listen that actually cared,” Ackerman describes in her artist statement.

Art Beat recently spoke with Ackerman about her experience:

Art Beat: What sparked your interest in this project?

Jenn Ackerman: The project really started when I read an article. I don’t remember what the article was about honestly, but there was a sentence that mentioned that there was an increase in the mentally ill in prisons, and so of course that led to questions and to weeks of research and then I had to do this project. People need to understand what’s going on and people need to see it and feel it. My belief is that when you feel something you can’t forget it and so my approach was to make people feel something from these images in order that they can’t forget it. So after weeks of research, I put a proposal together and started contacting prisons in the U.S. that were attempting to meet the needs of the mentally ill.

A man on suicide watch lays without a blanket. “Isolation works in our favor sometimes, but more often than not it works against us,” says Dr. Stephanie Roby, psychologist in CPTU.

Art Beat: What was your experience in the prison? What are you trying to make the viewers feel?

I felt sorrow, compassion, and that’s what I wanted people to feel. It wasn’t that I was scared of these men and I didn’t want people to walk away scared; I wanted them to walk away saddened by the fact that these men had ended up in prison. It was a really sad experience for me and one where I felt helpless in a way and that emboldened me more. I need to do this even more than I thought originally. I need to help these men, not necessarily the ones in Kentucky, but the people that are ending up in prison with mental illness. I need to help the situation.

Art Beat: You say in your artist statement that “The system designed for security is now trapped with treating mental illness and the mentally ill are often trapped inside the system with nowhere else to go.” What do you mean?

Jenn Ackerman: At first, I went into the prisons with the intention of showing what the inmates were dealing with and then I realized that it’s actually two-sided. The prison system is designed to keep people secure within the boundaries of a prison. They’re not designed to be a hospital and they now have to do both, which means they are not doing either really well. They are not getting as much funding as they would need in order to treat these men and they don’t have the capacity to do so. They’re correctional officers, not nurses; they are not there to treat the inmates, but that’s what they are learning. They have to be trained to help treat people with mental illness.

Correctional officers clean the room of an inmate, searching for possible weapons, after the inmate cut himself with a spork earlier that morning.

On the other side of the equation, a lot of the men that I met received treatment before they ended up in prison. I would say 97-98 percent had already received treatment, which was not very successful at the time. They would be put into a hospital setting, but at the time they would only be able to stay in a psychiatric treatment facility for 72 hours. With someone with mental illness, that is definitely not enough to maintain their meds and get them stabilized, so they often went back on the streets and got off the meds. Some of these men did some pretty heinous things, but often they were just delinquents. They would steal something at a convenience store and then they would be put into jail overnight and they wouldn’t understand what was going on and they would hit an officer and that would get them into the system. Once they get into the prison system, it’s really hard for them to get out because a lot of them are not aware of what was going on, they don’t understand the rules. A lot of these men were not able to follow the rules of society and now to follow the rules of the prison system is really difficult.

The men in CPTU are a fading memory for many. The mentally ill often get trapped int he system with nowhere else to go. Here, a man stands in the middle of his room for most of the day staring at the 4 walls surrounding him.

Art Beat: What about the correctional officers? Can you speak about their experience?

Jenn Ackerman: It’s not an easy job for them. I saw the level of compassion that they needed, the level of trust that they had to have with these men, who are very volatile. They are a very volatile community of inmates and the officers really cared and that really surprised me. The first day that I was there, I saw them do a cell entry, which means they broke down the door, handcuffed an inmate, and strapped him in a chair. I was so taken back and upset by the situation and I was so frustrated with the officers because I was like, “What are you doing? Why are you hurting them?” That afternoon, they explained to me, “Look, Jenn, he was trying to commit suicide. He had been trying to hurt himself all day.” I realized at that moment that they have such a tricky position to play because they are not only trying to keep them secure, they are really trying to keep them from hurting themselves. If that means being hit on and spit on, then they are willing to take that. It definitely takes a certain type of individual; not every correctional officer can handle that level of compassion day after day after day. There is a high level of turnover in that unit for that reason alone. It takes a lot of patience and humor to get through that and not every officer comes into a prison expecting to have that kind of job and need those kinds of traits.

An inmate is cuffed and returned to his cell after acting out earlier that day. A spit mask is used to prevent him from spitting at the doctors and correctional officers. “Our priority is security. That mandates that we have certain security measures that cant be breached. But security can’t be a stranglehold on progress,” says Larry Chandler, warden of Kentucky State Reformatory.

Art Beat: How did you gain the access and trust you needed to tell this story?

Jenn Ackerman: One of the things I really strive for is access and trust in all of my projects, no matter what. I realized that in order for me to be the photographer that I am, I have to have that. That’s what I told the warden. He was an amazing component to this. He believed in educating the public and at the time, his prison was really struggling with what to do with this population. When I first approached him, I gave him my spiel and told him I needed that level of access and asked him if he was willing to do that and I just put it out on the table and told him exactly what I needed and what I was planning to do. He believed in the story and he believed that people needed to know about a population that is rarely talked about in prison.

The officers restrained an inmate after he banged his fist and head on his cell door for six hours and threatening to kill himself.

The inmates were skeptical of course of someone coming with a camera. But after days of talking to them and explaining my intention and showing them that I was willing to put down my camera and the questions I was asking them — I wasn’t really asking them about their crime and I think that also helped. I didn’t really think it was necessary to the story and I think that showed them that I really did care about their condition in prison and their experience of mental illness. That’s pretty much all I asked them, “what are you experiencing, do you hear voices, tell me about what goes on through your mind during the day?” Those kinds of questions. I think that helped to reinforce the story that I was really trying to tell and I think over time, everybody within that prison, including the doctors and the correctional officers, knew that this is a story that no one really talked about and they were really willing to talk to me about it.

To see more of Jenn Ackermann’s photographs, view the slideshow below:

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