Photographer Captures the Experiences of Mentally Ill Prison Inmates


Due to the evaporation of funding that supports mental health facilities, many prisons across the United States have been given the extra duty of treating those who are mentally ill. These patient-prisoners are often trapped within the systems with no where else to go for better treatment.

Trapped is a project by Minneapolis, Minnesota-based photographer Jenn Ackerman that shares the experiences of these prisoners through gritty black-and-white photographs.

Ackerman spent months shooting the images inside the Correctional Psychiatric Treatment Unit (CPTU) of the Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR) — a medium-security prison for adult men that’s located about 30 miles northeast of Louisville, Kentucky.

It is estimated that within the Kentucky prison system, roughly 25% of prisoners are suffering from a serious mental health issue (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar). A 2006 study by the US Department of Justice revealed that there are only around 55,000 patients being treated in mental health hospitals, while roughly 555,000 mentally ill people are locked away in the nation’s prison system.

“We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” Kentucky State Reformatory warden Larry Chandler tells Ackerman.

To take the burden off the state’s prisons, the Kentucky Department of Corrections created the CPTU at KSR in 1998. Since then the unit has grown from 13 beds to 150.

The facility has three wings: patients/inmates in wing C are supervised under a 23-hour lockdown. Wings A and B ar for those who don’t need round-the-clock attention. The goal of the system is to return the mentally ill patients out of CPTU and back into the ordinary prison system — or into the general public if their sentence has been served.


Forced Shower


Cell Entry



Forced Medication



Daily Medication Line

Lock Down


Trapped: Mental Illness in Prison


Delusional Paranoia




Suicide Watch

In Their Minds

A Hand to Hold

Ackerman has also won an Emmy award for this short film created about the project:

You can find the entire collection of photos in “Trapped” on Ackerman’s website. You can also read an article Ackerman wrote for the project here.

(via Jenn Ackerman via PBS)

Image credits: Photographs by Jenn Ackerman and used with permission

  • RevDru

    As someone who has dealt first-hand with a mentally ill (schizophrenia) family member who has been in and out of the US prison system, this hits very close to home. After his first stint in prison, we took my brother-in-law in with us. It was an experience which nearly ended my marriage. Neither my wife or I have been trained in dealing with mental illness, so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. After 8 months of living with us, my brother-in-law decided that he wanted to live with his own mother again. Less than three months later, he was back in prison. Having seen just a tiny glimpse of mental illness, I can only begin to imagine what prison employees have to go through. Most of the prison workers have only a minimal bit of training on how to deal with mental illness, and they are expected to work with the mentally ill every day. The system is so broken and I don’t see it ever being fixed.

  • KH

    It really is a shame.

  • Eugene Chok

    i checked myself into a mental health facility because of drug related issues…. luckily i was in Australia, america has a really really bad mental health problem that politicians just want to ignore

  • Stanco55

    If you can’t solve (or at least fake it) at the point of a gun- America can’t and won’t address it, let alone deal with it…

    Hey, a bright shiny object- let’s Tweet!!!

  • Genkakuzai

    Truly disturbing… these people need HELP, not punishment.

  • Paul

    It’s so sad :(

  • Marco

    Powerful series and beautiful photographs. This is photography at it’s finest.

  • agour

    I agree!

  • superduckz

    I share a similar story with a close family member although it was not schizophrenia which can be truly frightening. When I see the places where we waste money by the truckload on issues that have “advocates” and then I see the voiceless and desperate being so mistreated it makes my blood boil to the point that I become unreasonable to talk to. Don’t even get me started on all the casual misdiagnosis that occur. It would be tough to imagine a worse environment than the prison system to deal with many of these problems. Although in many cases (like schizophrenia) some sort of perpetual monitoring will always be necessary.

    This is a wonderful and sadly familiar photo essay. Bravo.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    oh man, these photos are just great. Really inspiring

  • Pain struck

    Thank you for taking these pictures, the truth, how this wonderful country has criminalized the mentally ill. My family has felt the torment of this illness, not only with a husband having mental illness, but our son as well. Both suffered audio and visual delusions. As much as i advocated for help the system failed. Two weeks after my son was 5150 hospitalized for only one day due to his insurance lapse, he now sits in a box 23-24 hrs a day in twin Towers awaiting trial. He’s hung himself and has been beaten to unconsciousness. When will the madness cease?