Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Wyatt V. Stickney: Did We Get It Right This Time?

Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Wyatt V. Stickney: Did We Get It Right This Time?

Article excerpt


I have been asked to tell you what conditions were like at Bryce, Partlow, and Searcy Hospitals during the years leading to Wyatt v. Stickney, the landmark federal court ruling which set standards for the care of the mentally ill and mentally retarded in Alabama and nationwide. I am not writing about the research of others. This paper is not meant to be an academic exercise. I am simply trying as best I can to describe this state, its institutions, and the madness of its politics as I have experienced it.

Wyatt v. Stickney (1) was yet another part of the great social upheaval in Alabama and across the South as fundamental change was taking place, primarily on issues associated with race. I lived this case for 33 years. I was in the federal courtroom when it began in October 1970. I was also there, with Ricky Wyatt, when it came to an end in 2003 during Bob Riley's first term as governor.


Bryce Hospital, once the state's largest mental health facility, abuts the University of Alabama campus, as it has since its completion in 1861. (2) It was promoted by Dorothea Dix, the nation's nurse, who so effectively advocated for proper care of the mentally ill. (3) She recruited a very young doctor, Peter Bryce, to be the first superintendent. (4) They both agreed that shackles and restraints were unnecessary and that patients should be allowed to go out into the sunshine, cut the grass, and raise crops. (5) It was a pretty nice place way back then. Patients were treated with the best care known at the time.

Politicians, as they are wont to do, messed things up. Their philosophy consisted of a simple calculus: mental patients do not vote, thus mental patients do not count. Alabama law allowed almost anyone to be put away, locked up, and left to die in a state hospital. (6) If Aunt Bessie regularly burned the biscuits, or if Grandma Smith said the same things over and over again, a relative could simply go to a doctor and tell him that their kin needed to go to the mental hospital, citing whichever malady he might wish to use.

Then the relative would go to the courthouse and meet with the probate judge, an elected official who really wanted to please the constituency. (7) Of course he[]all the probate judges were men at the time[]probably had no legal training, much like the doctor who had no psychiatric training. The probate judge would sign the commitment papers, call the sheriff, and have him take the offending kin to the mental institution, generally to never be seen or heard from again. (8) Sad.

Thanks to the ease of this system, over time the populations at Bryce, Partlow, and Searcy skyrocketed from hundreds to thousands. (9) As their populations grew, so too did their need for employees, but the institutions were never adequately staffed. (10) Without a proper staff, the able-bodied patients did the work necessary to fill the gap. (11) All three institutions over saw large farming operations complete with horses, cows, and pigs. (12) The patients prepared the soil, planted the crops, harvested them, cooked the food, served it, and even hand-fed patients who needed assistance. (13)

The Bryce archives include pretty pictures of patient rooms equipped with a double bed, dresser, and rocking chair. In the old photos, Bryce looks like a nice hotel of the era, replete with large dining halls, tablecloths, and neatly set tables. When the extra wings were added, however, a couple hundred patients became thousands of patients. Extra floors and buildings were made longer, and any semblance of a normal life slowly disappeared. (14)


My father brought our family to Tuscaloosa from Montevallo in 1948 so that his six sons could go to the University of Alabama, become engineers, and work for the Alabama Power Company. He made a pretty good living with the power company himself. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.