Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons

Photographer Jenn Ackerman has created a stunning and extensive video essay on Kentucky’s correctional facility for prisoners with mental illness, interviewing the inmates, staff and clinicians who form part of America’s biggest provider of residential psychiatry – the prison system.

Of course, the prisons were never designed to be providers of mental health care, but as a recent Time article noted, they have become the default treatment facility for the many people who fall through the cracks.

Ackerman has created a introductory film and also has put several prisoner interviews online, where we meet people in various states of distress and recovery. There’s also a fantastic film on ‘inmate watchers’ who have the responsibility to checking on vulnerable, volatile or suicidal inmates.

The films are sometimes disturbing, bleak in places and occasionally sublime, but are immensely revealing and show remarkable sensitivity in their construction.

From Ackerman’s written essay that accompanies the piece, I suspect that we only get to see the least affected people as those who are most ill are unlikely to be able to consent to being interviewed, meaning that even this bleak portrayal is likely to be a relatively positive depiction.

A man has been singing songs at the top of his lungs for the last two days, while another, hunched on his bed, wails from under a blanket. In a cell across the hall, a man shakes as he yells to his wife he has not seen in five years and to the thug down the street. In reaction to the noise, another man bangs endlessly on his cell door until an officer comes by and asks him to stop. He smiles and says he just wanted someone to talk to.

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” says Larry Chandler, warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky. With the rising number of mentally ill, the reformatory was forced to rebuild a system that was designed for security. Never intended as mental health facility, treatment has quickly become one of their primary goals.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Kentucky. The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons across the US into the default mental health facilities.

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.

Ackerman also has a gallery of still photographs and says she intends to make a feature length film which, if it has the impact of her online work, is likely to be profoundly moving.

Link to Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons.

One Comment

  1. miguni
    Posted August 9, 2008 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    the mental illness treatment in this country is dismal and criminal neglect, you have a choice of being homeless and without medication or in prison being ignored most of the time with no proper diagnosis or treatment, it is not the prisons fault they have been forced to house the mental patients who’s only crime is being to sick to get help from county or fed aid, we have a start in the parity bill that was passed by congress for those who have some form of health coverage already, but this does not consider how to give aid to those who are already in the prison system, the guards ae not trained m,h, nurses and are forced to ignore the truly psycotic while they scream from their personal demons attacking them, this is where the medications and treatment become a human compassion story, we are so interested in other countries but ignore this in our own country. this is unexscusable and it made me heartsick to see this in the documentaries on the prison system, why do murderers,pedophiles and rapist’s get better care then the mind sick homless on our streets??


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