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 (prisons) are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” says Larry Chandler, warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory.
With the rising number of mentally ill, this Kentucky reformatory was forced to restructure a system that was designed for security. Never intended as a 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 U.S. into the default mental health facilities.
Since the 1960s, there has been a shift from housing the mentally ill in hospitals to locking them in prison. The prison 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. A report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the number of Americans with a mental illness 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.
What started out as a 13-bed special unit has grown to a 150-bed treatment unit for the state’s most severely mentally ill inmates. Staffed by licensed mental health professionals, the unit provides crisis intervention, stabilization and individual counseling. Despite their attempts to meet the needs of these inmates, many including Kevin Pangburn, mental health director for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, believe these men are “trapped with nowhere else to go”.
This 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.
In light of recent horrific events including the one at Sandy Hook, I hope to continue this project about mental illness. I plan to photograph in city jails and the few mental health facilities that exist in the US including one in St. Paul, MN. While a dialogue about mental illness and gun control continue to pepper the media, I would like for this project to be a thoughtful documentation about the connection between the prison system and people with mental illness. There needs to be a shift in the way our society sees mental illness and I am hoping this project starts a dialog about the impacts of imprisoning the mentally ill.