Pennhurst Asylum

Trick or Treatment

It’s that time of year: Jack-o’-lanterns, witches, black cats, and haunted houses. I loved Halloween as a child and still enjoy the “holiday.” As an adult, I’ve gone on haunted hayrides and visited scary attractions like Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary’s “Horror Behind the Walls.”

            In recent years there has been some controversy over the use of the Pennhurst Asylum as a site for a horror attraction. Critics and advocates for the mentally ill argue that the use of this property promotes the public’s misperception that people who suffer from mental illness are violent and dangerous or, in some cases, psychotic serial killers.

            I actually visited Pennhurst several years ago to take the more traditional tour of the facility as part of my research for my first novel. While some scenes in my book are set in Byberry State Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia, most of that property was demolished in 2006. I also knew from my research that Byberry and Pennhurst had been designed by the same architect and many of their red brick buildings were virtually identical.

            Fortunately, most, if not all, of these state institutions were shut down in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Admittedly, this purging of these human warehouses led to new problems such as homelessness and a lack of treatment for some of its former residents. A more recent concern for mental health advocates is the advent of local, state, and federal prisons becoming the new asylums for the mentally ill. It is now estimated that fifteen to twenty percent of inmates in jails and prisons suffer from some form of mental illness, which largely goes untreated in these institutions.

            I have a friend who suffers from mental illness and who is currently serving time in a state prison for a relatively minor infraction. Due to his non-treatment inside these walls and his subsequent failure to comply with certain prison rules, he has now spent the last three years of his life incarcerated and is possibly on the verge of becoming institutionalized. I find it very sad and concerning that a formerly creative, albeit sick individual, is on the verge of spending the rest of his life in prison for something as nonsensical as harassing pedestrians outside of a convenience store.

            While I admit that there are no easy answers to the aforementioned issues, there does remain hope that it may be solved or at least alleviated. Some states like California have created special courts for people who suffer from mental illness. These jurisdictions are offering alternatives to incarceration including half-way houses in which mentally ill defendants receive treatment instead of punishment. These alternative measures not only save people’s lives, but also cost our society much less money than it would to just warehouse them in prisons.

PS: I appreciate your following my blogs. I plan to post one every Friday and hope you will visit my website and read them. Next week I will discuss how mental illness has been treated in the movies.