Photography

Interview with Jenn Ackerman, photographer of the series on mentally ill Kentucky inmates

>Back in 2008, photographer Jenn Ackerman went inside the disturbing Kentucky State Reformatory to show us what life is like inside for the mentally ill inmates, the doctors, the correctional officers, and other staff. We got hold of her recently and asked her about what was a most confronting experience. [Read the original post about this series here]

We know you got the inspiration for your series, Trapped, after reading an article about the mentally ill in prison. But what made you decide to really go for it?
After I had spoken to the warden about the project, he asked that I come and check it out before we committed to anything. I knew the project was interesting to me but that tour solidified my desire to work on it. I was able to see how sick the men were and it allowed me to care about them. At that moment they were just a statistic but real men with real stories.

Describe the feeling of entering the prison and seeing the inmates for the first time?
Before my first trip to the prison, I was interested in doing the project but it wasn’t until I walked into C wing for the first time that I made the decision to definitely work on the project. I can remember it like it was yesterday. As soon as I walked through the doors, I heard pain. Men were screaming, crying and banging. I saw a man crouched in the corner crying and another walking back and forth in his cell talking to himself with his fists in the air. Right then, I knew I had to work on the project. I also knew that I needed to incorporate audio and video in order to tell the story as I experienced it.

What was the reaction of the prison doctors and staff when they first heard that you were doing a series on their patients?
The warden was happy to have me there from the beginning but the doctors and correctional officers were weary of my presence. In fact, the doctors did not like me being there at first. It took a full week before anyone really trusted what I was doing. I began interviewing the staff and I think that helped them to see what my intentions were just based on the questions I was asking everyone.

You spent months going in and out of the prison for the series. Did the haunting atmosphere wear you down in any way?
It did. There were days that I couldn’t face going into the prison because of the emotional toll it was having on me. While it was probably the most rewarding project personally, it was the most consuming emotionally. And even though I was a free woman and could come and go as I pleased, I was still bound by the barbed wires and gates when I was there. There were days that I felt locked in and had to leave.

Can you talk about one inmate in particular and your experience in photographing him or her?
Marty Williams made a huge impact on me as I was working on this project. Through him, I was able to see how fragile and volatile these men are. One day, he would just want to talk or sing a song and was pretty mellow. The next week, he would be yelling and would be full of rage.

Not everybody that ends up in CPTU needs to be in there, Dr. Roby says.
Not everybody that ends up in CPTU needs to be in there, Dr. Roby says.
Matthew Estep, an inmate watcher with a life and 25 years sentence, talks to an inmate on a one-on-one watch.
Matthew Estep, an inmate watcher with a life and 25 years sentence, talks to an inmate on a one-on-one watch.
An inmate is cuffed and returned to his cell after acting out earlier that day.
An inmate is cuffed and returned to his cell after acting out earlier that day.
“We have to remind mental health staff of the policies to protect everyone,” says Sergeant Rioux.
Marty Williams asks a correctional officer to read a passage from the Bible to him through the tray slot on his door. A religious man, Marty screams
Marty Williams asks a correctional officer to read a passage from the Bible to him through the tray slot on his door. A religious man, Marty screams “I am praying for you,” to everyone who enters the wing from the cell he now calls home, C13
Inmates from A Wing wait their pills during the afternoon pill call.
Inmates from A Wing wait their pills during the afternoon pill call.
Correctional officers clean the room of an inmate, searching for possible weapons after he cut himself with a spork earlier that morning.
Correctional officers clean the room of an inmate, searching for possible weapons after he cut himself with a spork earlier that morning.

About the author

Inigo is a writer and graphic designer from Manila, Philippines. He is a soldier of love who will carry you on his strong back of awesomeness when the zombie apocalypse arrives.