Lili Kobielski is a New York City–based photojournalist whose work often explores the complex social issues surrounding adversity in America today. In her 2015 book, Rockabye, published by Daylight Books, Kobielski offered a visual to the struggles and triumphs in Rockaway, Queens, as the coastal neighborhood of New York City recovered in the devastating aftermath of 2012's Hurricane Sandy.
Her new book I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail, published by powerHouse Books, portrays a collection of interviews and pictures that illustrate a sensitive portrait of what incarceration looks like for those inmates who have a mental illness at the the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago.
Here, Lili Kobielski shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of pictures from her new book and her words on the experience of photographing at one of the largest single-site predetention facilities in the world.
What this book offers is a glimpse. A glimpse of life behind bars, a glimpse of the inequality, the poverty, and the damaging government policies that can lead to incarceration. But mostly, I wanted the book to not be in my words. I wanted it to be in the words of incarcerated people and of the officers, doctors, and social workers who are working in the jail every day.
Each interview in the book was transcribed verbatim and the portrait sessions were participatory. For each photo session, I asked, “How would you like to be photographed?” so each person could be an active participant in their representation.
This project started in 2015 when I got a call for pitches from Narratively seeking stories about jail for a collaborative piece with the Vera Institute of Justice. I pitched a version of the book and Vera was extremely helpful in helping me get access to Cook County Jail. I made several visits to the jail over the past three years.
During my first visit, the press office selected four inmates for me to interview, but after that initial trip I was given more flexibility. On a shoot day I would be escorted into a division of the jail — usually a treatment division for mental health — and introduce myself, explain the project, and ask if anyone wanted to participate. More often than not I would have more people wanting to be a part of the project than I was allowed time for.
I don’t know if it was entirely unexpected, but I continue to be amazed by the inmates’ openness and generosity in sharing their stories with me. I was also amazed by the jail staff I interacted with, especially the social workers, who are incredibly dedicated to helping the inmates at Cook County.
I am certainly not an expert on the prison system as a whole, although for those interested, I highly recommend visiting the Vera Institute of Justice’s website as it has plenty of information about incarceration and is very active in criminal justice reform. I became especially interested in Cook County Jail because there is such a direct correlation between government policy and an increase in incarcerated people.
Between 2009 and 2012, Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services and two state-operated inpatient facilities and six Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. After losing access to care, many of these people ended up in Cook County Jail — usually for low-level crimes such as vagrancy or shoplifting. Cook County Jail has become one of the largest mental health care providers in the country.
After doing dozens of interviews over the past few years, I strongly believe that lack of opportunity, education, funding, and services — such as mental health care — coupled with discrimination and poverty are directly linked to mass incarceration around the country.
I believe at least a portion of prison reform has to start in communities — equal funding, access to health care, access to education, access to a community without violence, often a result of lack of opportunity. From my experience there, Cook County Jail is trying to address many of these issues through its programming — it offers a wide range of classes, therapy, and medical care. However, if there are no resources in the communities when people are released, some end up right back in jail.
According to a 2015 Vera Institute survey, $42,883,537,590 was spent on prison per year nationally, an average of $33,274 per inmate. 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 person with a mental illness, the daily cost doubles or even triples.
What I hope people take away from these images is empathy and humanity. I hope the project illuminates a small, dark corner of the complex and difficult social issues that are quite literally locked away. I hope that the book will inspire readers to give money to nonprofits working on justice issues, to give money and volunteer at local clinics helping people in the community get mental health care so they do not end up in jail, or to bail out low-level offenders with mental illnesses who do not have the funds to pay for their $100 bail.
I also hope policymakers see the book and push to provide funding for community health care and services so people can get the treatment they need at home and not in jail and can continue treatment upon their release. I hope these photographs and interviews humanize incarcerated people with mental illnesses, and encourage us as a society not to sequester and ignore humans needing help, not punishment.