Haunting Images of the Mentally Ill in Prison

The Photo Blog
April 1 2013 11:00 AM

Trapped: The Story of the Mentally Ill in Prison

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 can't be breached. But security can't be a stranglehold on progress," said Larry Chandler, warden of Kentucky State Reformatory.
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 can't be breached. But security can't be a stranglehold on progress," said Larry Chandler, warden of Kentucky State Reformatory.

Jenn Ackerman

When photographer Jenn Ackerman spent her first day at the Kentucky State Reformatory for what would become the series “Trapped,” she knew she had no choice but to photograph the images in black-and-white.

“When I went on the tour (of the prison), I didn’t see it in color; when I came back, I was trying to remember what it looked like, and I couldn’t remember any of the colors at all. I knew there was something so gritty and raw,” Ackerman recalled.

“My intention was to make the viewer feel what I felt when I was inside the prison.”

Anthony Rosario stares out of the cell he remains in for 23 hours a day. "They are rejects of society and warehousing them in prison isn't the way to go. Most of them don't have life sentences—they will get out someday," said psychologist Dr. Tanya Young. "What do they do when they get out? There needs to be something else to absorb them or take them in," she added.
Anthony Rosario stares out of the cell he remains in for 23 hours a day. "They are rejects of society and warehousing them in prison isn't the way to go. Most of them don't have life sentences—they will get out someday," said psychologist Dr. Tanya Young. "What do they do when they get out? There needs to be something else to absorb them or take them in," she added.

Jenn Ackerman

Julia Lish, a correctional officer, comforts an inmate during one his psychotic episodes. "Its going to be OK," she repeats as he cries and yells to the voices in his head.
Julia Lish, a correctional officer, comforts an inmate during one his psychotic episodes. "Its going to be OK," she repeats as he cries and yells to the voices in his head.

Jenn Ackerman

After banging on his cell door for six hours straight with his fist and head, the officers restrained an inmate who was threatening to kill himself.
After banging on his cell door for six hours straight with his fist and head, the officers restrained an inmate who was threatening to kill himself.

Jenn Ackerman

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“Trapped” came about after Ackerman read an article in the New York Times on the growing population of mentally ill inmates in prisons in the United States. After her initial visit and her subsequent permission to document conditions in the prison, Ackerman moved to the area and spent roughly five days a week throughout the summer of 2008 photographing what she saw.

“The reason for my project wasn’t to show how terrible the conditions were in the prison; it was to [ask], ‘Is this really where we want these men to get treatment?’ We need to focus our energy on finding funding for mental health before this ever happens,” Ackerman said, noting that helping inmates psychologically isn’t the top priority; it’s security. “The only place many of these men have been able to get treatment has been in prison,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman said she has a lot of respect for correctional officers and worked hard to gain the trust of the doctors who were treating the mentally ill within the prison. Because the images are so stark and emotional, doctors were concerned it would appear that the patients weren’t getting adequate treatment.

“Once I really gained [the doctors] trust … they said they knew I was doing something to help the situation and not showing them in a bad light,” said Ackerman.

In fact, many of the images have subsequently been used as an educational training resource in prisons and law schools.

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

Jenn Ackerman

Danny Castile holds up drawings and writings he says are invaluable to the Department of Corrections and the judge who sentenced him to life.
Danny Castile holds up drawings and writings he says are invaluable to the Department of Corrections and the judge who sentenced him to life.

Jenn Ackerman

Bobby Slater looks out of his cell to an inmate watcher walking around during his 15-minute watch. "This is a miserable life experience for them, but some of them don't want to leave because they have been in society and they saw what happened," says lead psychologist Dr. Tanya Young. "In here, for the most part people treat them with respect."
Bobby Slater looks out of his cell to an inmate watcher walking around during his 15-minute watch. "This is a miserable life experience for them, but some of them don't want to leave because they have been in society and they saw what happened," says lead psychologist Dr. Tanya Young. "In here, for the most part people treat them with respect."

Jenn Ackerman

Jonathon Ponder laughs from within his cell at another inmate across the wing. Numbers, like the one below his name, are given to every inmate upon their entry in Kentucky's Department of Corrections.
Jonathon Ponder laughs from within his cell at another inmate across the wing. Numbers, like the one below his name, are given to every inmate upon their entry in Kentucky's Department of Corrections.

Jenn Ackerman

 “You want to go into a prison and treat the mentally ill? This is what you have to deal with. They are showing people, this is the type of compassion and patience you need to have and these are the types of people you’ll come into contact with,” said Ackerman.

Spending time in the prison was both exhausting and rewarding for Ackerman and stayed with her long after she put her camera down.

“It was a project that was really emotionally draining, the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on … my experiences and interactions with the men were good, and I missed them after the project, which was really surprising to me,” Ackerman said.

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