This series of photographic portraits and interviews with Cook County Jail inmates as well as jail social workers and psychologists provides a glimpse of life with mental illness behind bars.
In late 2015, Lili Kobielski began taking portraits of inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. Working in collaboration with Narratively and the Vera Institute of Justice with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, she began documenting the prevalence of mental illness among inmates at Cook County Jail in an effort to humanize the reality of mass incarceration in this country, often of its most vulnerable citizens.
The Cook County Department of Corrections is one of the largest single-site pre-detention facilities in the world, with an average daily population hovering around eight thousand inmates. It is estimated that 35 percent of this population is mentally ill.
According to a May 2015 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012. As a result, two state-operated inpatient facilities and six City of Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. Emergency room visits for patients having a psychiatric crisis increased by 19 percent from 2009 to 2012, and a 2013 report by Thresholds found that the increase in ER visits and hospitalizations resulting from the budget cuts cost Illinois $131 million-almost $18 million more than the original "savings."
In addition, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner's refusal to pass a budget for more than two years has caused more than eighty thousand people in Illinois to lose access to mental health care. Two-thirds of nonprofit mental health care agencies in Illinois have reduced or eliminated programs, and a third of Chicago's mental health organizations have had to reduce the number of people they serve.
The Cook County Sheriff's Office estimates that it costs $143 per day to house a general population inmate. But when taking into account the treatment, medication, and security required to incarcerate a mentally ill person, the daily cost doubles or even triples-yet now more patients than ever are being treated in jail rather than at a mental health facility. Cook County Jail has become one of the largest, if not the largest, mental health care provider in the United States.
Lili Kobielski graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 2010 with a BFA in photography, and received her master's degree in digital media from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 2012. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, Narratively, Thirteen, Quartz, The Wilson Quarterly, Vice and The Vera Institute of Justice. Her first book, Rockabye, was published in 2015 by Daylight Books. She is a winner of American Photography 32 and American Photography 33 and her work has been shown in the 2017 exhibitions Re-imagining a Safe Space at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and On Freedom at the Aperture Foundation. Mary Crowley is Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at the Vera Institute of Justice. A member of its leadership team, she leads Vera's strategic communications efforts, particularly around its core priorities of reducing the use of jails, improving conditions for people who are incarcerated, and securing equal justice in an increasingly diverse America. In addition to overseeing numerous campaign launches, Mary has led a number of initiatives, including Vera's recent rebranding and website overhaul, National Prison Visiting Week, and the communications around its 2015 International Sentencing and Corrections Exchange, which was featured in The Marshall Project and on 60 Minutes.