© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

Humanizing Portraits of Mentally Ill Inmates at Cook County Jail

The jail has become the largest mental health care provider in the US.

Occupying 96 acres in Chicago, Illinois, the Cook County Jail is one of the largest pre-detention facilities in the nation. Most of the 8,000-or-so inmates housed there each day are awaiting trial. And according to the jail’s Office of Mental Health Policy and Advocacy, about a third of the prisoners are mentally ill.

Between the years 2009 and 2012, Illinois cut $113.7 million in mental health funding, resulting in the shutdown of two state inpatient facilities and six Chicago mental health clinics. During this same period, there was a 19 percent increase in emergency room visits for people experiencing psychiatric crises, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Instead of receiving specialized care, mentally ill Chicagoans charged with a crime are being treated behind bars, and Cook County Jail, by extension, has become the largest mental health care provider in the United States.


In late 2015, photographer Lili Kobielski began visiting inmates in Cook County Jail and documenting the plight of prisoners living with mental illness. Her new book, I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail, is a powerful examination of the intersections between poverty, mental illness, mass incarceration, and race.

Kobielski recently spoke with VICE about the importance of amplifying the voices and circumstances of some of America’s most vulnerable citizens.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

VICE: What inspired you to start photographing inmates at Cook County Jail?
Kobielski: It started with a call for pitches for Narratively , who was collaborating with the Vera Institute of Justice, looking for stories on jail. I started researching and came across Cook County Jail. On their website, they post what percentage of people who were arrested are mentally ill, because it is such a big issue there.

Mental illness is something that has affected people close to me, and it’s something that I care about. What is special about Cook County Jail is that the social workers screen every single arrestee for mental illness. They separate them from the general population: psychotic and severely mentally ill people are taken to Cermak, the hospital wing, and there is an entire division, called Division Two, for mildly mentally ill people, which is overflowing at the moment.

Division Two is a nicer place to live. There are no cells. It is dorm style, totally open with bunk beds. Everyone there is in programs, and there are several therapists, doctors, and PhDs in social work who are trying to help people receive therapy, treatment, and medication.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

What was your process for securing access to the inmates?
Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County Jail, respects the Vera Institute and that gave me access I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I always had someone from the press office with me, but it took a while before they would let me interview people without having several correctional officers (COs) right there. It was a process of trust, and once they got used to me, they let me be. Never once did I feel uncomfortable or concerned for my safety.

The first time I went, they selected the inmates I was allowed to speak with, but after they saw the first round of work that came out of it, they felt more comfortable. After that, they would bring me into a division with 50 to 100 people and say, “Here’s the photographer. She wants to interview you and take pictures. Who wants to be part of it?” and usually 90% of the people in the room wanted to participate.

I only photographed people who gave consent. I never photographed anyone unless they knew they were being photographed. I didn’t talk to them about ongoing cases, at the request of their attorneys. They are in jail so they haven’t been convicted of anything; most of the time, they haven’t even seen a judge.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

How did you conceptualize the story you wanted to tell?
The most important element was hearing from the people directly. Every interview is a straight transcription from the interviews I recorded. I asked everyone to tell their story how they wanted it to be told, to talk about their childhood, their experience, their life, mental illness—anything they wanted the world to know. I wanted it to be a multitude of voices telling their own stories in their own words.


Could you describe your typical workday?
I was shooting and interviewing from nine to five, depending on the availability of the press office. The first piece I did, I shot over two weeks, pretty much 40-hour weeks. I would come in, meet people, do releases, and I would do back-to-back interviews and photo sessions. I would fit in as many as I could. Of course, it never feels like enough time.

I tried to be open and respectful and listen. I did very little directing. I didn’t even ask many questions in the interviews. Incarcerated people are on such a rigid schedule; they are being told what to do and how to be every day, so I tried to be the opposite of that and let them be in charge of their representation.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

What struck you most about the stories they shared?
Across men and women, the story was almost identical. People were coming from the same neighborhoods in Chicago, mostly South Side. They grew up very poor in single parent homes and foster care [and suffered from] early trauma and abuse, lack of opportunity, and violence in the neighborhood.

Almost all of the men were involved in gangs. They had single moms and siblings and couldn’t keep the lights on. It was, “When I was 11 I wanted to be a man, so I went on the streets to join a gang, because I wanted to help my mom.” That’s how it starts. They get arrested at 13 and are in the criminal justice system. That’s the story I heard over and over again. There wasn’t anyone that was a serial killer or a psychopath.


The women had a similar story, but in general the women were much more self-destructive with drugs and alcohol. Many were prostitutes. In the middle of this project I had a baby. When I started working with the women, hearing their stories, almost all of them have kids and families. That really got me.

There were days my voice and hand would be shaking by the end, because it’s very intense. Everyone I talked to made it into the book, because they all were so open and generous with their life stories, often very difficult ones.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

How did you avoid common “jailhouse tropes” in your work?
Every portrait session was collaborative. Every person directed their own photo shoot. I was trying to get away from the iconography of incarceration, as well as my own perspective, which we can’t escape. I shot almost everything with flash as a way to neutralize the institutional lighting and make it more of an individual portrait session.

Some totally had a vision, and [they] went for it and directed me. That was great! Others were more shy, and I would make a couple of suggestions and it went from there. Usually they looked surprised that I would ask, but in a good way.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

What did you observe about the challenges jailed inmates experience?
It’s nearly impossible to escape. I spoke to many older people who had lost track of how many times they had been arrested. It becomes a way of life. It’s so damaging to the community. It’s fractured families and kids growing up without parents, thinking that’s the only route. Being in jail is traumatic, and talking to the therapists and social workers, they will say, "Being here is the most counter-therapeutic thing you can do." The constant trauma and stress just makes it worse.


The problem is when people get treatment in jail and start to do better until they are released. Then there is very little support in the community. It’s hard to get medication, because so many clinics are closed down, and then it’s just a cycle. Someone goes off their meds, they sleep on a park bench or steal a soda—it’s usually a very low level crime—and they end up right back in jail. Some of the COs are on a first name basis [with prisoners] because they are in and out so much. They knew several who would commit a low level crime so that they could come back and get treatment in the jail, because they didn’t know anywhere else to get it.

The $113 million that was “saved” has been completely blown. Illinois has spent $131 million on the mushrooming population of mentally ill people in jail. It is just terrible policy. It doesn’t make sense in any way, other than systemic racism and keeping people in poverty. [I am privileged to be] educated, with a strong family support system, but if you make a mistake and don’t have anyone to catch you, this is what happens. That could be me.


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books


© Lili Kobielski, courtesy of powerHouse Books

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