The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons across the U.S. into the default mental health facilities. The system designed for security is now trapped with treating mental illness and the mentally ill are often trapped inside the system with nowhere else to go.
The project portrays the daily struggle inside the walls of the unit redesigned to treat mental illness and maintain the level of security required in a prison. The photos take viewers into an institution where the criminally insane are sometimes locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day with nothing to occupy their minds but their own demons.
My intention with Trapped was to spark calls for reform for the treatment of the mentally ill and the prison system in the US.
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. The problem with the mental health system in the US did not spring up overnight. Since the 1960s, there has been a shift from housing the mentally ill in hospitals to locking them in prison. The system designed for security is now trapped with treating mental illness and the mentally ill are often trapped inside the system with nowhere else to go.
This project documents the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit at the Kentucky State Reformatory. I choose this institution not because it is inhumane but rather because it is one of the best psychiatric units in the country. It portrays the daily struggle inside the walls of the unit redesigned to treat mental illness and maintain the level of security required in a prison. The photos take viewers into an institution where the criminally insane are sometimes locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day with nothing to occupy their minds but their own demons.
I left the prison everyday feeling the same way the warden and the doctors do - wanting to help these men that have nowhere else to go but feeling helpless. My intention was to produce a riveting body of work that made the viewer feel what I felt when I was inside the prison. There were days that I was extremely scared and others that I left thinking how much someone on the outside missed them. Some days, 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 the system with no hope of getting out.
I saw them cry. I saw them hit themselves so hard in the head that they bled. I saw them throw their feces at the officers. I saw a world most people don’t even know exists in America.
While this is a topic that has been covered in foreign countries, we have yet to see an in-depth photo documentary on the treatment to the mentally ill in America. Thus, this story is one I am honored to tell given the access that I was granted.
As a documentary photographer, I use my camera as a way to show people and social issues in the US that are often overlooked or ignored including mental illness in prison, HIV in rural America, and families living in Appalachia. I am interested in people and how they are defined by society and take a documentary approach to my work, getting as close as I can to my subjects. My photography is raw, intimate and emotional which requires honesty and trust from the people I photograph. My photos peel back the veneer, revealing unguarded emotions and social injustice without betraying the people I am photographing.
I was recently named to the 2012 PDN’s 30 Photographers to Watch and over the years my prints have been shown in local and national galleries. My photographs have been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others for my ability to gain access to people and situations that the public rarely sees. A couple of years ago, I decided that my approach to photography was strengthened by the moving image so I began producing documentary films. My short films have been recognized with an honorable mention for a Webby and a Telly and have been screened at film festivals around the country. One of my most recent projects, Trapped, was named Non-Traditional Photojournalism Publishing Project of the Year and the project’s short film won an Emmy.
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To see the Emmy-winning film, visit www.ackermangruber.com/trapped.