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Lili Kobielski
Photography Lili Kobielski

Photographs from inside the largest jail for mentally ill people in the US

Photographer Lili Kobielski documents the lives of inmates living in a Chicago jail for her recently released book

Samantha’s battle with mental illness began when she was diagnosed with bipolar in 2012. “So my mom’s whole side are alcoholics and they’re gang-affiliated. My dad’s side, they drink religiously as well... We all have bipolar in the family,” she said. Photographer Lili Kobielski met her while documenting mental illness in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the largest jail in the United States. Samantha’s trial over an armed robbery had been repeatedly postponed, but at least she had stopped self-medicating with alcohol and was getting treatment in jail.

Lili Kobielski’s latest book, I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul, grew out of a collaboration with digital publication Narratively and the Vera Institute of Justice. Specifically, the photographer wanted to work at Cook County after hearing about the jail’s efforts to manage the increasing numbers of inmates with mental illness. When she started the project in 2015, Cook County Jail – which has an average daily population of 8,000 – had been referred to as “the largest mental hospital” in the US.

Every single day, newly-arrived detainees are screened for mental illness and taken to the jail’s mental health unit which offers medication plans, therapy sessions, psychiatric visits, and classes. An estimated third of all inmates suffer from some form of mental illness in this jail, though nationwide they make up as much as half the population by some counts.

Though jails are frequently fictionalised in books and films, pop culture is sometimes guilty of proliferating stereotypes through incomplete or parodical representations of prison. But even when prisons are documented, inmates seldom get to tell their own stories.

That is why Kobielski’s work expands beyond photography. “It was very important for me to not have (the book) be in my words,” she explains, so she conducted dozens of interviews with inmates and transcribed them verbatim. As for the images, the photographer would ask: “How do you want the world to see you?” and inmates would pose as they wished.

Nicole turned 30 in jail. It was November 2017, and she’d been brought there a year earlier after falling back into drug addiction and being charged with armed robbery. “I’ve been diagnosed with ADD, bipolar, depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, impulse control disorder,” she explained. She said the recovery programme was helping her be more trustworthy of relatives and that she wanted to work on getting the custody of her 11-year-old son back.

The programme at Cook County also provided a glimmer of hope to Theresa, who had been in and out of prison several times over the years. “I started using drugs at the age of 22. I went down an alley where all the rats and garbage is at and I didn’t come out until I was 36,” she recalled. “It’s not my first time being locked up, but it’s my first time really understanding the triggers of my addiction.”

Marshun, who suffers from bipolar disorder, also noticed massive changes in his behaviour: “It’s been complicated at times, dealing with the psych part, but I’ve come to understand that we’ve gone undiagnosed – we have emotional disorders we don’t know about.” After speaking to Kobielski, he also contributed one of his poems, which is the cover of the photobook.

Over time, Kobielski recognised that almost all stories shared similarities. “It was often: grew up really poor, grew up in a violent neighbourhood, grew up with a lack of opportunity, grew up with a single parent or in a foster care,” she notes. “All of these things are so directly related to how people end up in jail.”

Beyond documenting mental illness, I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul also portrays some well-known disparities of the American criminal justice system. For example, the fact that black and Hispanic people are overrepresented in US jails or that there is a link between poverty and the likelihood to land behind bars.

The photographer also turned the spotlight on women, who only represent 10.4 per cent of the incarcerated population, but report having mental health problems at a much higher rate than men. “There is a lot of addiction and self-destructive behaviour among the women, much more than the men,” she points out.

To a certain extent, Kobielski’s book debunks a common misconception that violence and mental illness are closely linked. Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, but jail is different from prison. While prisons house those who have been sentenced, jails are mostly filled with people who have not been convicted and are locked up because they are too poor to make bail and are being held before trial. “When I was there, there was a homeless man that had stolen a pair of jeans and he had been there for months because he couldn’t afford the 200 dollars of bail,” Kobielski says.

“When I was there, there was a homeless man that had stolen a pair of jeans and he had been there for months because he couldn’t afford the 200 dollars of bail” – Lili Kobielski

A small proportion of people serve short sentences for minor offences such as driving with a suspended license, public intoxication, or shoplifting. “No one I talked to was a serial killer. It was a lot of addiction and low-level crimes,” the photographer says. In most cases, the behaviours that landed them in jail stemmed from mental illness, homelessness, or addiction.

Kobielski believes Cook County Jail’s unconventional program could set an example for other US jails. But ironically, the progress made behind bars frequently ends the minute inmates are freed. Many of them can not access care outside of jail due to cuts to mental health services in Chicago. “A corrections officer actually told me he knew several people by face and by name because the only place they knew to get treatment was in jail so they’d be released and throw a brick through a window so they would get arrested and go back,” the photographer says.

The roots of mass incarceration and the problems that result from it are complex, even overwhelming. Like most photographic work on prisons, Kobielski’s photobook also makes a case for prison reform. But at the heart of her photography is the desire to humanise a reality that’s rarely seen. Reading about the lived experiences of inmates helps deconstruct preconceived visions of jail. “It wasn’t gloom and doom and scary music, it’s people,” the photographer says. “It’s people who are trying to make it work, be okay, laugh… People who are locked away, not to be seen by society.”

“It’s important for outsiders to remember humanity extends everywhere,” she adds, “I hope it will help remember humanity, empathy, and not to sequester and ignore people that most often need help, not punishment.”

I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul is published by powerHouse books