From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945

From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945

From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945

From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945

Synopsis

To many, asylums are a relic of a bygone era. State governments took steps between 1950 and 1990 to minimize the involuntary confinement of people in psychiatric hospitals, and many mental health facilities closed down. Yet, as Anne Parsons reveals, the asylum did not die during deinstitutionalization. Instead, it returned in the modern prison industrial complex as the government shifted to a more punitive, institutional approach to social deviance. Focusing on Pennsylvania, the state that ran one of the largest mental health systems in the country, Parsons tracks how the lack of community-based services, a fear-based politics around mental illness, and the economics of institutions meant that closing mental hospitals fed a cycle of incarceration that became an epidemic.

This groundbreaking book recasts the political narrative of the late twentieth century, as Parsons charts how the politics of mass incarceration shaped the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals and mental health policy making. In doing so, she offers critical insight into how the prison took the place of the asylum in crucial ways, shaping the rise of the prison industrial complex.

Excerpt

America’s prisons have become our new asylums—only worse, because
they’re not equipped to handle the needs of people in psychiatric crisis.

—Ronnie Polaneczky, Philadelphia Daily News, 2014

In 1942 the Philadelphia police picked up George Elder for hitchhiking. a man of Cherokee and African American descent, Elder had taken to the road as a hobo during the Great Depression. During his trips around the country, he traversed twenty- five states. Yet now, at age thirty- five, his traveling days had abruptly ended. the authorities found Elder’s expired draft card, learned he had refused to fight in World War ii, and took him to court. Elder told the judge that he had refused to fight in the war because of the government’s racist practices. “I said I was a pacifist who hated guns and wars. I was a conscientious objector and wouldn’t shoot anybody. and I didn’t want to fight for a country that treated Indians and black men like America [did].” Not only did Elder refuse to fight, but he also demanded that the U.S. government reimburse him $346 for the injustices committed to Native Americans. Elder’s radical request for reparations angered the judge, who sent Elder to two psychiatrists. the doctors diagnosed George Elder as paranoid schizophrenic, certified him legally insane, and committed him to the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, one of the largest hospitals in the country. a white preacher tried to get Elder released in 1947; a Byberry staff member did the same in 1962. Both of these attempts failed, and Elder remained at the hospital for twenty- nine years.

In August 1970—amid efforts to reduce the number of people at Byberry—hospital administrators finally released the sixty- four- year- old Elder.

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