Cook County inmates learn photography in arts program

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Some Cook County inmates are learning photography skills while they're behind bars. (WLS)

The Cook County Jail is one of the biggest institutions of its kind in the world, and one program seeks to focus on the mental health of the people that pass through.

Last week, a graduation was held for those in the art programs behind the jail walls. There were smiles in an unexpected place where a bit of caring seems to be accomplishing something.

Amid drab walls that set off the hue of the prison clothing, inmates were inspired.

Music accompanied the second annual photography exhibit at the jail - the brainchild of celebrity photographer Chris Jacobs who, in concert with Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart's Office, teaches 20 inmates at a time how to take photos.

As a video montage of them played on the cinder blocks, the emotion of having come through some sort of learning process shows

"I am incarcerated in here, but I am one of the happiest men because I am taking this whole thing with me," said David, who was charged with breaking and entering. "Know me now and I could see me now, I could see the pride."

David and others say the art and music should help them to make better decisions when they're released, which is exactly the aim of the program's financial benefactor -- who says laughter is therapy.

"I am not trying to correct them," said Jacobs, the program's benefactor. "I am trying to give them a different way of seeing and hearing things."

These are men are in jail for non-violent crimes or have not been convicted, but in most cases lack the money for bail. They all have mental health conditions that have, for the most part, gone untreated -- until now.

Kris, 28, now has medicine for the first time and a sense there's a bit of good out there for him

"With that mind-state that the mental health transitional program gives us, it helps me motivate myself and become a better person for my community," Kris said.

"'Have you met you yet?' That is the philosophy and I haven't met me yet at that point," said Andro, 32, who is charged with drunken driving. "Now, I am glad to say I have met me -- I am a better person now."

Sheriff Dart said the mental health transition center's overall approach has been in operation for about two years. In that time, men they would have expected to be passing through the jail 2-4 times per year are not re-offending. He said it's too early to say "mission accomplished" but there's empirical evidence this approach is working.

"In the middle of the jail, the biggest advocates for the detainees are the correctional staff -- it's phenomenal," Dart said.
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