My primary goal with Trapped is to accurately portray the reality of living with mental illness for prisoners in an effort to call attention to the increased imprisonment of the mentally ill in the US.
This project started after reading an article in the New York Times that mentioned the growing population of mentally ill inmates in the US. After weeks of research, I called a couple of prisons and after speaking to the warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory, I decided to make a visit and see if it was a project I wanted to pursue. After seeing the men and the conditions, albeit one of the best in the country, I knew it was something I had to do.
I began photographing inside the prison in 2008. I worked hard to gain trust and during that time, I was granted unprecedented access into the mental health wing in the Kentucky State Reformatory. After a couple of months photographing inside of the prison, I was given a staff badge and unrestricted access to the prisoners at the facility.
My intention was to make that made the viewer feel what I felt when I was inside the prison. I took a more personal and emotional approach to this project than I ever have. I listened to the inmates and the doctors and set out to take photos of how I felt when I was there. I wanted to show weakness, despair, hostility and vulnerability that I saw when I was there. I left the prison everyday wanting to help these men that have nowhere else to go. 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. There were hard days but mostly rewarding ones. For most of these men, they have been outcasts of society and rarely heard. So they had a chance to share their story and have someone listen that actually cared to listen not just focused on treatment or safety.
My intention is to spark calls for reform for the treatment of the mentally ill and the prison system in the US. Since beginning on the project, I have produced a film about the subject and have spoken at numerous prison conferences throughout the country. My work has been used as an educational resource for prisons and law schools and I continue to speak for mentally ill inmates throughout the country. My hope is that the project exposes the injustice, spreads awareness and encourages a needed policy change about imprisoning the mentally ill in the US.
About The Photographer
Jenn Ackerman received a bachelor’s degree in social research from James Madison University, studied photography at the Danish School of Journalism and received a master’s degree in visual communications from Ohio University. Jenn takes a documentary approach to her work, getting as close as she can to her subjects. She likes to work in intimate settings and bring viewers into situations and stories that rarely are told. Her photography is raw, intimate and emotional which requires honesty and trust from the people she photographs. “Her intention is to peel back the veneer, revealing unguarded emotions, irony and incongruity without betraying her subjects” (PDN, March 2012).
In 2012, she was named a 2012 McKnight Fellow and one of PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch. Her photographs has been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Magnum Expression Award, CENTER Project Competition, Photojournalism Competition on Human Rights, Emerging Photographer Fund, the PGB Photo Award, the Honickman First Book Prize and others. In 2009, she was published in the Communication Arts Photography Annual and named to Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50. Her multimedia and video have been recognized with an honorable mention for a Webby and a Telly and two of her short films have been screened at film festivals around the country. One of her most recent projects, Trapped, was named NPPA’s Non-Traditional Photojournalism Publishing Project of the Year and the project’s short film won an Emmy.