Text by Samantha Michaels; photographs by Lili Kobielski
Nicole’s 30th birthday came and went in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. It was November 2017, and she’d been brought there more than a year earlier after relapsing into drug addiction. She knew her 11-year-old son missed her, but at least she was getting some treatment. “I’ve been diagnosed with ADD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, impulse control disorder,” she explained, her straight, dark hair so long it practically reached her waist.
Chicago’s Cook County Jail is the biggest single-site jail in the United States. It’s also one of the biggest mental health care providers in the country. About a third of the jail’s 6,000 or so inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and many of them were sent to the facility after the state reduced funding for hospitals and community caseworkers during the economic recession. Between 2009 and 2012, Illinois slashed $113.7 million from its budget for mental health services, causing at least two state-operated inpatient facilities and six Chicago clinics to close. Two-thirds of nonprofit agencies that offer mental health care in the state say they’ve had to cut back on their programs. With fewer services available, more people struggling with psychosis have been pushed into the streets. Most of those who are now housed in the jail were brought in on charges of nonviolent crimes.
Motivated by the growing mental health crisis, photographer Lili Kobielski set out in 2015 to capture portraits of the inmates, now compiled in the book I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul, which was released in December and includes transcripts of their interviews, plus poems they wrote during their incarceration. Working with the Vera Institute of Justice, she spent time with Nicole and a diverse group of detainees, in addition to a social worker and other staffers at the jail. Each portrait was a collaboration between the inmates and the photographer, who asked how they would like to be portrayed. (Surnames have been withheld for privacy.) Many spoke of childhood trauma and abuse, of the struggle to escape rough neighborhoods.