Thursday, March 02, 2006

New York State Inebriate Asylum/Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane

Morning temp: 20 F
Precipitation: LOTS and LOTS for the next several days. But, since I don't have to shovel it or drive in it too much, it looks like a beautiful white carpet covering the dead grass!

Many of you know that I worked intensively on the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles, and also that I love local history. Well, I've got a doozey of a combo right in my own backyard: my husband works 2 days a week at the Binghamton Health Center, which is a large state mental hospital perched on a hill overlooking Binghamton and the whole river valley. His building is a modern and functional one, but when I went to pick him up the other day, I had a few minutes to kill and decided to drive around the rest of the grounds. . .

This is/was a BIG campus, established in the 1850s as a self-contained 250 acre farm complete with its own generators, morgue, cemetery, foundry, bowling alley, movie theater, dormitories, administrators' housing, etc. There are at least 30 buildings, of various types of function, architecture and states of disrepair.

The centerpiece of the campus is the original mental hospital, the New York State Inebriate Asylum; a massive neo-Gothic (Tudor castellated?) building that was the tallest in the county for a long time, even after the super-tall, spiraling, ornamental turrets were removed in the 1960s for safety reasons. It has been closed since the 1990s because it began to crumble, and let me tell you, it might be the creepiest building I have ever seen in this country.

There is a movement to get the state to sell the long-dormant Inebriate Asylum to a private developer or anyone who will put it to good use. The latest proposal is to convert it to senior housing, which is probably quite appropriate, but apparently the state is being slow and hasn't opened it up for bids yet. There is an excellent website with incredible photos and the beginnings of an oral history of the place, here:

Back to the "Inebriate Asylum" . . . While this name, as well as the follow-up "Asylum for the Chronic Insane" sounds pretty harsh, and conjures images of all sorts of brutish treatment, these sorts of state mental h0spitals were actually very progressive in their day:

In the 1840s, a teacher and preacher's daughter named Dorothea Dix ventured into some women's prisons to teach Sunday school near her home in Boston. She was shocked to find that so many clearly mentally ill people were being commingled with common criminals and treated horribly, simply because society did not know what to do with them. Ms. Dix began a decades-long fight to reform the way society treats people living with mental illness, and the result was the development of "asylums" in the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, particularly in New England. These institutions were premised on the principle that mental illness, as well as alcoholism, are diseases that must be treated compassionately and not criminalized. What they became in later decades is another matter. . .

I find it very interesting to note that we, at least in my experience in California and especially Los Angeles, have regressed to the pre-Dorothea Dix days of criminalizing those living with mental illness, simply because we cannot muster the political will to develop meaningful solutions. I cannot count how many times I was in policy meetings with self-described "homeless advocates" who argued vehemently against involuntary commitment. While I am mindful of the abuses that can occur with this process, the pendulum has swung too far in California and lawmakers need to stand up to the ACLU and acknowledge what the average person knows instinctively to be true: it is far more inhumane to let a mentally ill person suffer and die on the streets than to restrain them against their will and give them appropriate medical treatment for a medical condition. If someone were having a heart attack on the street, someone would call the paramedics and they would administer aid. They would not stop and ask the person suffering from a medical crisis whether or not they wanted help. It's just that simple.

To those who argue against making it easier to involuntarily commit people, I have one statement to which I never receive a rebuttal: We involuntarily commit mentally ill people every single hour of every day in Los Angeles- it's called jail- and that is far more inhumane than giving them the medical help they require.

OK, that was quite a tirade. My past research indicates that New York state is far ahead of California as far as repealing the 1960s-era laws that made it so hard to get people into mental hospitals. I'll be very interested to monitor this topic (New York's "Kendra's Law" vs. California's underfunded and sunsetting "Laura's Law") in the New York news in the next couple of years.


CDLeland said...

never a dull moment in the life of Annie Samuelson Williams... :-)

Æsop said...

More views of the Asylum:

And can I recommend Drunkard's Refuge? (Not that I've read it.)