Jailing the Mentally Ill


By Jenn Ackerman

Since the 1960s, increasing numbers of mentally ill individuals who have committed offenses or are regarded as dangers to society are being housed in prisons and jails across the U.S.—in part because of funding cutbacks.

In the process, jails and prisons have become by default the nation's largest mental health institutions, leaving many individuals in facilities that are ill-equipped to treat them, and with nowhere else to go to receive the treatment they need.

According to a 2006 Department of Justice study, 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates have mental health problems—an incarceration that costs taxpayers an estimated $9 billion a year.

In 2008, after reading an article in the New York Times that mentioned the growing population of mentally ill inmates, I began photographing inside the Kentucky State Reformatory prison.

I wanted to understand what this means to individuals trapped inside the system.

The project became a documentary film, “Trapped,” which I hope triggers a dialogue not only about prison reform, but the mental health crisis in America.

Slideshow: ‘Trapped’ — By Jenn Ackerman

The problems with the U.S. mental health system did not spring up overnight.

People with mental illnesses were released from the hospitals with the hope that the communities would integrate them. The goal was to reduce the number of mental health patients housed in government-operated institutions and to shift the care to local communities, where programs would be created to handle their special needs.

However, that didn't happen.

These people were left without access to treatment and adequate housing.

Their de-institutionalization, in fact, began the cycle of homelessness and incarceration for the mentally ill.

In Kentucky alone, it is estimated that 25 percent of all Kentucky prisoners are afflicted with serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. To alleviate the strain in the state's prisons and jails, the Kentucky Department of Corrections decided to concentrate its efforts in one location.

In 1998, it created the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

What began as a 13-bed unit has grown into a 150-bed treatment unit for the state's most severely mentally ill inmates. While this amounts to progress for the corrections authorities, their priority is security.

They acknowledged to me that they are not able to meet the needs of this new and growing population.

At first, I was given 10 days to photograph the story. The warden granted me three months of unrestricted access into the psychiatric unit, after I produced the first short film. It was in this unit, where I spent most of my time.

It took me only a couple of days of filming behind the walls of the prison hearing the cries of the mentally ill prisoners, to realize the complexity of this issue.

Since it has become increasingly hard for people with mental illness to get consistent treatment in the community, many of them find refuge and treatment for the first time in the prison system, however ill-equipped it is for this population.

During the three months I spent on the project, I left the prison every day feeling the same way the warden and the doctors do.

I wanted to help these men, but I felt helpless.

Most days I spent listening to their stories and songs, and learning about the demons in their minds. Some days, I was frightened by their violence.

Other days I left the prison heartbroken. I had to remind myself that many of these men had done heinous things.

There were also days when I was reminded that some of these men have faded into a correctional or prison system without hope of ever being released.

When I started the project, I had no idea the impact it was going to have on my life. Whenever you witness something like this, something that people in the community rarely see or talk about, the experience impacts your view of the world.

Most people that are considered a nuisance in our society have nowhere to go and no one really to take care of them. Through this project, I have seen how medicine can help and hurt, and how isolation in prison is not the answer for most people with mental illness.

I am now a huge supporter of funding for mental health centers and mental health funding in our communities. This is a viable way to keep people with mental illness from cycling in and out of the prison system, which is ultimately more expensive for our society.

I witnessed these men cry. I saw them hit themselves so hard in the head that they bled.

I watched as they threw their feces at the officers with anger and desperation. I witnessed a reality most people do not even know exists in America.

These men are outcasts of society and their voices are rarely heard.

These photographs, and my film, tell their story.

Jenn Ackerman is an independent film-maker based in Minneapolis. In 2012, she was named a 2012 McKnight Fellow. She welcomes comments from readers.

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