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Living with Mental Illness Behind Bars

“Incarcerated voices are not heard often or enough,” says Lili Kobielski. In her new book, I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul (PowerHouse Books), Kobielski shares the stories of Chicago’s Cook County Jail inmates and their social workers, corrections officers and doctors. Their narratives are told through a trio of portraits by Kobielski, transcribed interviews, and the subjects’ own hand-written letters.

Kobielski hopes the portraits and the chorus of voices create a “moving and meaningful account of mental illness and incarceration in this country.” One goal is that the policymakers who see the book consequently push to provide
funding for community healthcare and services so people can get the treatment they need at home, before a jail sentence. And that if incarcerated, they can continue treatment upon release.

In the U.S. mental illness is stigmatized and access to care in poor neighborhoods is limited. Many of the inmates with mental illnesses Kobielski interviewed reported self-medicating for years with street drugs, which only exacerbated their illness and often led to their arrest.

After talking to dozens of inmates at Cook County Jail in 2015, Kobielski says she was “shocked by the painful similarity of each person’s life story.” Most, but not all of the men and women she spoke with were minorities, all of them said they grew up poor. Most came from single parent homes and suffered trauma and abuse as a child; witnessing a murder at age
seven, suffering sexual abuse by several family members at the age of six, being beaten by gang members at age 10.

“Fighting mass incarceration and the criminalization of mental illness and addiction must start in communities,” says Kobielski. As an inmate who is being treated for his depression and bipolar disorder for the first time in jail so presciently said to her, “Having the proper resources can break the cycle of young kids joining gangs and coming here.”

I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul
By Lili Kobielski
PowerHouse Books

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