Photographer Captures Mentally Ill Prison Inmates

laughing prison inmate
Jonathon Ponder laughs from within his cell at another inmate across the wing. The number below his name is one given to every inmate upon their entry in Kentuky’s Department of Corrections.

It is difficult to go through these candid images shot inside the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) of the Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR). The institution is a medium-security prison for adult males situated around 30 miles northeast of Louisville, Kentucky. As a backgrounder, funds allocated in subsidizing mental health facilities have been drying up slowly many years now, and numerous penal complexes all over the United States have been absorbing the burden of housing these mentally ill inmates. Sadly these prisons are not equipped for such conditions and the personnel are not trained to handle the insane. These inmates are often stuck within the systems with no alternative for proper treatment.

Minneapolis based photographer Jenn Ackerman captured the dreadful reality that exists in many prisons through blunt black-and-white photographs. The series, Trapped, was assembled over several months shooting inside the Kentucky prison.

comforting mentally ill inmate
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.

Ackerman estimates approximately 25% of the prisoners are afflicted with a serious mental health problem such as schizophrenia or are bipolar. In 2006, a study conducted by the US Department of Justice showed that only around 55,000 patients are being properly treated in mental health institutions, while a staggering 555,000 mentally ill are lumped together with other criminals in the country’s prison system.

psychotic episode of inmate
An inmate is helped back into his cell during a psychotic episode. Correctional officers are not only responsible for securing inmates but now help treatment staff and other mental health professionals identify and manage mentally ill inmates, says Sergeant Jeremy Rioux, correctional officer and first shift supervisor.

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” laments Larry Chandler to Ackerman. Chandler is the Kentucky State Reformatory Warden. To help ease the burden off the state penitentiaries, Kentucky Department of Corrections instituted the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit or the CPTU at KSR in 1998. The unit initially began with 13 beds, but today has 150. The 3 wing facility features Wings A and B for cases that do not need 24/7 attention and a Wing C where patients are supervised under a 23-hour lockdown.

restrained inmate
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.

The objective of the of CPTU is to be able to return the patients back into the regular prison system, or back to freedom if their sentence has been fully served. Still, these stark images of Trapped convey a harsh existence inside the CPTU.

officers in front of cell door
Multiple officers wait by the door before a cell entry. “We use multiple officers to decrease the chances of anyone getting hurt including the inmate,” says Sergeant Rioux.

Check out the Emmy award winning video by Ackerman below:

View the photo series Trapped here.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.