Imagine you’ve organized inmates at the Cook County Jail into a photography class. Hard to do, since most of us can’t imagine volunteering anywhere, doing anything, not even for an hour stuffing envelopes at a local church. Never mind approaching Sheriff Tom Dart, persuading him to let you into the jail, then digging into your own pocket to buy cameras to place into the hands of hardened men more accustomed to using their hands to throw gang signs.
Still, imagine you’ve done all that and held your first photography exhibit in the jail.
What’s your next thought? If you were Chicago music photographer Christopher Jacobs, it is “Now I’ll organize the prisoners in my second photography class into a drum circle.”
“After our first show, I was out in Venice Beach for the Grammys and I saw a drum circle and I thought, ‘Bingo, that’s my next thing,’ ” explains Jacobs, a professional photographer, standing in the gym of the jail’s Mental Health Transition Unit on the grounds of the old boot camp just east of the jail.
The photos on the gym’s yellow cinderblock walls reflect a narrow range of subject matter by necessity. “Our canvas was super-limited,” says Jacobs. Bars, fellow prisoners, plants from the garden, the therapy dogs Jacobs brought in one day.
“Who doesn’t love a dog photo?” he says.
In the center of the floor, conga drums and rhythm boxes await.
I’ve always associated drum circles with either the faux tribalism of 1960s hippie culture or 1980s Iron John into-the-woods lunges at masculinity. How do drum circles benefit inmates?
“It helps them with their active listening skills,” says Dena Williams, director of behavioral health at the Department of Corrections. “It’s team-building. It’s empowerment. And most importantly, one of the key skills we teach at the Mental Health Transition Center is being able to listen.”
A hundred prisoners file in, wearing beige surgical scrubs stenciled with “DOC.” These are nonviolent inmates awaiting trial on low-level offenses, and they seem to skew a little older than the general jail population of about 8,400, down from the 10,200 of three years ago. Most fill risers, participants in the drum circle take their places and begin a simple “bump, ba-dump-dump” beat.
How did Jacobs get connected with the jail in the first place?
“I was photographing the executive director, Nneka Jones Tapia, for the American Psychological Association. I was blown away by her thought process,” Jacobs says. “So I offered to do some volunteering. After a few weeks and months of phone calls and emails we came to the conclusion that I don’t want to preach, but I’ll teach.”
Jones Tapia is a clinical psychologist Dart made warden of the jail last year in recognition that 35 percent of prisoners grapple with mental illness.
A half-dozen prisoners stand before the crowd and praise the impact the programs have had on their lives, lauding Dart, the guards, the staff and Jacobs.
“He has shown us how to focus on the simple things in life,” says David.
“This is the wake-up call I needed,” says Andro, a Humboldt Park gang member with tattoos on his face.
Later, I tell Dart that the general reading public will sneer at drum circles and photography classes as inconsistent with their notions of jail and punishment.
“I agree,” he says, breaking into a smile, reminding me of something too often forgotten: Most prisoners in jail haven’t been convicted of the crimes they’re being held for. They’re here because they can’t make some minimum bond. Most are getting out, and most will then return unless the cycle can be broken somehow.
Jacobs says he sees the effect on prisoners.
“It’s powerful,” he says. “Are they going to leave here and become photographers? I tell them ‘No.’ But I want them to see things differently.”