Ad pros help Cook County Jail detainees get creative

Detainees at the Cook County Jail pitch their advertising ideas to a class in the facility’s Mental Health Transition Center

First of a three-part series. Click here for part two.

In April, photographer Christopher Jacobs, producer Ron Nelken and editor Bob Ackerman helped to complete three commercials for the musical instrument manufacturer Latin Percussion.

Although the ads are unlikely to appear on any network or website, they were celebrated by pretty much everyone who saw them.

That’s because they were created by men in the Cook County Jail.

“By doing these kinds of things … they learn the process,” says Jacobs, the Chicago-based photographer who founded the program. “That’s stimulating your mind and your soul.”

Jacobs’ work has appeared in print ads, magazine editorials and album covers around the world. It ranges from commemorative essays on fading institutions like the pay phone and the mobile home park to personal portraits of national icons like BB King, Tommy Chong and the Oakland Raiders cheerleading squad.

During a photo session with the executive director of the Cook County Jail for the American Psychological Association last spring, he came upon the idea of starting a photo class. It eventually expanded to include a drum circle, a creative writing class and an advertising program.

“Everyone in there deserves a chance,” he says. “At the end of the day, if we didn’t accomplish anything else, we accomplished some smiles. That is medicine.”

After 18 months, the county hired Jacobs to be Program Manager.



Advertising class is held on Tuesday mornings in a classroom inside a section of the jail dedicated to helping detainees return to the community.

“This whole building is the Mental Health Transition Center,” explains Sophia Ansari, spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “We want to be able to provide ongoing additional therapy and job skills and life skills for them so that, when they transition, they’re successful. It’s the Sheriff’s vision to do this.”

The only difference between the MHTC and any other campus-based institution is the noticeable presence of corrections officers. Given the increased number of police patrols becoming part of everyday civilian life, it could easily be mistaken for the regular world.

The jail staff screens and approves all the detainees who want to participate in the educational programs. Due to the specific nature of the population that inhabits this sector of the institution, acceptance is fairly high.

Christopher Jacobs

Most of the detainees have been accused, but not convicted, of nonviolent crimes. They are only stuck here, waiting for their trials to begin, because they cannot afford bail.

“It’s strictly economics,” says Jacobs. “If you’re in this jail, it’s because you can’t post bond. These guys have been here for a year, year and a half. If they leave worse off than they came, it’s not correcting the problem.”

Mutual respect dominates the interaction between officers and detainees when large groups move throughout the facilities. The accused in tan jumpsuits form straight lines and remain quiet. Their keepers in military olive provide instruction and remain calm.

In the classroom, a lighthearted mood takes over. The students occupy chairs that face the teacher’s desk and occasionally joke around while they learn. A single officer sits in the corner and gives everyone plenty of space, both literally and figuratively.

Photographs taken by the detainees adorn the beige cinderblock walls. Among the images of flowers, trees and portraits posted last winter was an action shot of three detainees leaping into the air. When critiqued in class, one of the men in the photo explained that he liked it because, in the picture, “we’re free.”

“We didn’t look like we were in jail,” he said.

According to Jacobs, this is an example of the program’s benefits.

“They’re seeing things differently, which is the essence of what I’m trying to do,” he explains. “It was a cool ass picture.”

Ron Nelken teaches the advertising class at Cook County Jail

Jacobs makes a point of arriving at least a half hour early to update the work on the wall before every class. Volunteer instructors Ron Nelken and Anja Moore, who work at Leo Burnett Worldwide, are usually there to assist him.

Nelken is a senior vice president and executive producer. For three decades, he’s helped make TV and radio campaigns for the most recognized brands on earth. But working with the detainees inspires him in ways that transcend any professional reward.

“Every time I go back to the office,” he says. “I feel really good that I’ve done something.”

Since founding the program, Jacobs has expanded the creative writing class to the female and maximum security populations of the jail and launched Arts To Excel, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping incacerated people achieve their potential and get in touch with their humanity through photography and the arts. To learn more about the organization, click here


Latin Percussion — Thank You

  Agency: Cook County Jail Mental Health Transition Center Advertising Class

   Advertising Class Instructors:

     Christopher Jacobs

     Ron Nelken: Leo Burnett

     Anja Moore: Leo Burnett


     Jake Brusha: Camera Operator

     Ron Nelken: Camera Operator

     Chris Wurst: Camera Operator

     Cory Coken: Audio

   Post Production — The Colonie

     Bob Ackerman: Editor

     Graham Chapman: Assistant Editor

     Lauren Malis: Colorist

   Audio — Noisefloor

     Cory Coken, Audio Mix