CHICAGO — No one wants to go to jail. But earlier this month a couple hundred people sat in the gymnasium of the Mental Health Transition Center at Cook County Jail and they were happy, filling the place with smiles and applause, vivid visions on the wall and what felt like hope in the air.
More than 100 of them had to be there. They were prisoners awaiting trial for a variety of non-violent crimes such as drug possession, retail theft, criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.
There were heavily armed guards. They had to be there, too; it’s their watchful job. There were some CCJ administrators and other staff. There were some members of the city’s artistic community, a few relatives of the incarcerated men, four members of the press and a professional photographer named Christopher Jacobs, who said, addressing this crowd, “This is surreal to be here.”
But he was the reason the people were there, for an event billed as the “1st Cook County Jail Mental Health Transition Center Photography Exhibit.”
Jacobs first saw the jail over the summer when he was on assignment for the American Psychological Association to take a photo of Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, the newly named executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections (i.e., warden). She is believed to be the first clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to lead a major jail or prison in the United States. That makes her a wise selection since, of the roughly 9,000 male and female inmates in the jail, most of them black and most of them poor, an estimated 35 percent suffer from serious mental illness.
“We talked a lot,” Jacobs recalls, “and as she explained her mission I was blown away by her thought process, her ideas. I was just compelled to ask her, ‘Can I volunteer to do something here?’ “
Over a series of emails and face-to-face conversations, that something turned out to be Jacobs teaching a photography class. It started in September, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. twice a month for four months. There were 26 men who started the class but, for various reasons — basically being released or being convicted and sent to prison — 12 made it to the end.
In the first class Jacobs showed the men and asked them to talk about — critique, actually — photos by such greats as Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz. Then they were free to take their own photos, each using bright blue Vivitar digital cameras that Jacobs bought on his own dime after various companies rebuffed his request to donate cameras for this experimental program. He also enlisted the help of a few artist friends, not all photographers, to visit the classes and talk about their work.
Unable, of course, to get an Uber and travel to photo-friendly locations such as the lakefront, the prisoners had a limited canvas, just themselves and the relatively bare MHTC grounds, which do include a garden where colorful vegetables and flowers grow.
“After each class I would go back to my studio and download each student’s images,” Jacobs says. “To see their visions was like opening presents.”
For the photo exhibit, the prisoners were transported by buses to the MHTC from the jail, which looms forebodingly just to the southwest. It was only a two-minute ride but it took them to a different world, of sorts. Tall fencing topped with barbed wire encircles the facility but in its low-rise spaciousness it is almost bucolic compared with the overcrowded, claustrophobic jail.
This area was opened in 1997 to serve as a “boot camp” to prepare inmates for possible careers in the military. But the military wasn’t much interested in welcoming former prisoners, so in 2014 the area became the MHTC. There are now 120 prisoners receiving treatment and medication and using the facility daily — they live in the jail — for counseling, learning jobs skills, preparing for the outside world … and taking pictures.
The photos, mounted creatively on pieces of cardboard and attached to the walls of the gymnasium, were filled with flowers and faces, artful and compelling.
On one portion of the wall were portraits of the photographers, taken by Jacobs, the men dressed in sport coats he bought for them. On another part of the wall were pieces of paper on which some of the prisoners had responded in handwriting to printed questions. These are some of those questions/answers:
Did you enjoy this photography class?
“It is something new to me. I never experience such a thing.”
“Because I learned how to tell a story by taking pictures.”
How did this class impact your thought process?
“It has brought me peace through pictures.”
“It allows you to look at things different than before.”
What can you utilize from photography that perhaps you could use in your life?
“To inspire myself to maybe take this to another level. Side job!”
“Create a story of everyday life.”
Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff, was not there for the one-day exhibit. His five young children did not have school that day and, he says, “I will take any chance I get to spend time with them.”
But he saw the photos the day before and says, “I was blown away.”
“A couple of years ago, mostly because of my kids, I went out and bought a 35-millimeter camera,” he says. “I do take photos but have very limited knowledge of photography. To see what these men have done has inspired me. The shadows, the lighting, the composition.
“These are lives of few if any positive accomplishments, and to be recognized, acknowledged for their work, well, that can change their perspective and be so empowering.”
The debate has long raged about the needs of prisoners, the function of jails and prisons.
“Now, we have reached the lowest point of all: bedazzled by the myth of rehabilitation, we are manufacturing habitual criminals in our prisons,” John Bartlow Martin wrote in Harper’s magazine. “Isn’t it about time to try a new method of dealing with wrongdoers? Prison is not just the enemy of the prisoners. It is the enemy of society.”
Martin wrote that in — are you ready? — 1954. He died in 1987.
Earlier this week Dart said: “The situation is worse than anybody could imagine. Eighty-five percent of the people who get out come right back in. It is our job to help fix them. We’ve got to give these people tools so that they are better off, have a better chance, than when they came in.”
He went on to talk about anger management classes, guitar and chess classes. “I will listen to any idea, any innovative idea for programs,” says Dart. “But photography was not on my radar screen. But, like I said, I was just blown away.”
At the exhibition, there was a video slide show of the photos, backed by “Mercy,” a song by the Dave Matthews Band. You should check out the lyrics, but here’s a bit:
“Mercy what will become of us/ Oh one by one could we turn it around/ Maybe carry on just a little bit longer/ And I’ll try to give you what you need.”
The photo exhibition lasted for only two hours. Four of the prisoners/photographers spoke to the crowd during a formal few minutes, but this was not at all like a traditional art show. There was no mingling, no sipping of wine, no chit-chat, no interviewing the artists. For all the good vibes in the gymnasium this was still a jail. But there was a touching group hug as the prisoners/photographers surrounded and thanked Jacobs.
One of the speakers was no longer a prisoner; Freddie Rice recently was released from jail and he had been part of Jacobs’ class. His photos were on the wall and he talked powerfully about how jail for some can be a place of “battered lives and broken dreams,” and how the photo class had made it something brighter.
Listening to Rice, one of the guards said, “Says a lot when a person will come back in here if he doesn’t have to.”
Then all the prisoners went by bus with the guards back to the jail and the photos started to come down from the walls. The others in the crowd walked out, away from the fences and barbed wire, and drove off to places across the city.
Jacobs went back to his life, to his 11-year-old son, to a flourishing career. He’s Chicago born and bred and has photographed such people as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Mavis Staples, has traveled the globe on assignment for a wide variety of clients (www.jacobsstudio.com
But he’ll be back in the MHTC soon. He expects to have 30 men start his second photo class. He dreams, too, of a fine arts program that might also have inmates eventually learning about “printing, radio, poetry, writing …” He goes on and on and then stops.
“What if Beethoven never had access to a piano? What if Ansel Adams never had access to a camera?” he says. “These men in jail are human beings. There is potential.
“Will it change their lives? I don’t know. I hope so, in some way. But this experience has changed my life. I have taken photos of very cool people, been in a lot of cool places. But this is the coolest thing I have ever done, and I am going to keep doing it.”
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