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“What started out as an assignment for school has produced a piece that has changed my life and hopefully will do the same for the people that view it.”

Jenn Ackerman

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now.”

Larry Chandler, Warden of Kentucky State Reformatory, La Grange, KY

“My students are my biggest inspiration.”

Jenn Ackerman

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This year, more than 700,000 people will be released from prisons and jails in the U.S. and more than half of them suffer from some form of mental illness. (Source)

A few months ago I wrote to Jenn Ackerman, praised her Trapped project and of course offered to promote it. I wanted to get at her stories behind the images – namely do an interview. Jenn, however, is as good a promoter as she is a photographer.

The list of questions I wrote out while eating my chili-verde burrito on Wednesday are made largely redundant by her blog post “Trapped: Questions Answered”. Her photography and multimedia is so strong that it also speaks for itself. There is a painful truth in her work; more questions than answers.

I have plenty material to give you a thorough summary of Jenn’s work.

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Firstly, allow me to give a run down of the current situation of mental health care provision in America’s prisons and jails.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with mental illnesses incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated while fewer than 55,000 are being treated in designated mental health hospitals. That is inadequate provision.

555,000 represents, at the very least, 16% of inmate populations of state and local jails. I would contend the figure is higher – well above 20% – but this is only my personal belief.

If these numbers are not shocking enough, one must consider the pressures the prison system – in and of itself – exerts on the mental health well-being of those incarcerated by consequence of the increased reliance on solitary confinement to control populations, unqualified staff (especially in private prisons), overcrowding, institutional violence, lack of volunteer programming and engagement (in remote facilities) and the inadequate/unconstitutional general health care provided in states such as Ohio and California. California Department of Corrections has been the subject of a high profile federal lawsuit for the short comings to provide suitable care. (Incidentally, the $1.9b figure quoted in the linked article used to be $6b, until Schwarzenegger rejected it … and there is a serious threat it will be nothing if California cannot sort out its budget disaster).

In prison systems with such endemic problems, it is those who have no way to advocate for themselves who suffer most. Jails have effectively become America’s defacto mental institutions; they house a larger volume of mentally ill people than all other programs combined.

Against this backdrop, Ackerman went to work.

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Prison Photography is keen to unveil the means by which photographers, anyone, can gain access to prisons to engage with the “invisibles” of society. In that spirit I quote Jenn;

How did you get access to this story?

I had done a lot of research and had decided on the story I wanted to tell when going to talk to the warden. I always feel that a an in-person visit is more beneficial. — I can better express my passion and excitement for this story. I had called a couple of prisons days before I called the Kentucky State Reformatory and to no surprise they didn’t respond to my messages. But then I came across a wing that was dedicated to mental illness in a prison. Warden Chandler answered on the second ring. This caught me off guard but got it together enough to tell him what I wanted to do. He said I had a lot of work to do before I could start on the project but that he might be interested. I sent a proposal days later and asked to come visit the reformatory to talk to him in person.

How did the warden and officials respond to the project?

I didn’t know how they would respond at first. But I also knew that the warden and everyone involved wanted this story to be told. I was very honest with everyone from the beginning. I told them that I knew that they were doing something to acknowledge mental illness in prisons which hasn’t happened in every state but that I also knew that the program was not perfect. I told them that was going to be my approach. So from the beginning they knew that I was not going to make them look bad but also wasn’t trying to say that they have the final answer to this issue. But I visited the warden the day before I published it on my site to get his reaction. He loved it and thanked me for creating an honest portrayal of the mental illness in prisons. I told him that was the best compliment I could ever get.

There can be no doubt that Jenn was lucky to find Warden Chandler who was so sympathetic to her objective and realised the importance of the project.

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Jenn has explained that she spent a total of 10 weeks on the project, including 10 days of still and video shooting. Her time commitment is reflected in the comprehensive coverage. Trapped is a dark bubbling cloud of stories and troubling images that are weft with human emotion, the occasional reprieve but predominantly the collision of lives – lives that orbit tormented psyches that a punitive world of reinforced doors & service hatches cannot soothe.

Jenn’s commitment is epic. Besides the Trapped feature film, Jenn breaks the project into a series of presentations. Firstly, the In Their Corner short about the inmate watch. Secondly, In Their Minds a series of seven film shorts allowing individual inmates camera time to represent themselves. Trapped is segmented into six photography galleries; each one a captivating photo-essay in its own right. I cannot over-emphasise the sensitive depth with which Jenn has documented the incidents on the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Jenn also provides an extended essay about her own response to the CPTU environment.

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Jenn interviews for 25 minutes at Multimedia shooter. The audio is wobbly and distorted but the information is valuable. Check out from 21 mins. onward to learn of the administration’s response.

Trapped: Mental Illness Inside America’s Prisons has deservedly received acclaim from burn magazine, 100 Eyes, Verve Photo, the White House News Photographers Association (honorable mention), Inge Morath Foundation and CPoY. Jenn recently won an internship at the New York Times.

Jenn credits her students for much of her inspiration. Check out Jenn’s class website for more details.

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EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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