Pennhurst State School
Located in Spring City, PA
Photo © 2005 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Pennhurst State School History
Pennhurst State School was a hospital dedicated to treat people with mental and physical disabilities; their ailments were most often the result of a genetic disorder, rather than psychiatric illnesses. Construction of The Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, as the hospital was named at that time, started in 1903 on a site in Spring City known as Crab Hill. The first group of buildings were completed in 1908, and the original campus layout was finished by 1921. The dire need for an institution for the developmentally disabled at the time had overcrowded the institution from the start, and the mixing of epileptics of normal mental capacity worsened the situation. It was soon realized that the epileptic patients should be treated in elsewhere, but the admission rates kept well above the number of discharges.
The patients at Pennhurst were mostly young and were often collectively called "children," however the age of the residents ranged from infants to people over 70 years old. They were generally separated by their IQ level, which was categorized into three main groups: Morons (59-69), Imbeciles (20-49), and Idiots (below 20). These medical terms were antiquated before they became popular in common slang, and were replaced with the terms Mild, Moderate, Severe, and Profound Mental Retardation. The lowest functioning patients were mostly bed-ridden in cribs, unable to bathe or feed themselves.
The amount of care needed for the patients here to attempt any kind of rehabilitation was quite a formidable task. Daily physical tasks such as changing diapers, showers, and assistance with walking were needed, as well as educational programs, but the overcrowded atmosphere and lack of trained staff made both types of activities take a back seat. As with most mental and developmental institutions run by the states in the U.S., the role of the hospital shifted quickly from treatment as a goal to custodial care. Low wages, long hours, and the overcrowded workplace kept many skilled doctors and nurses from applying for jobs, creating an even more difficult situation. In 1946, there were only seven physicians serving over 2,000 patients at Pennhurst, with no room for the 1,000 still on the waiting list for admission; the patient census peaked at 3,500 in 1955. Therapeutic facilities were constructed, but sat disused due to lack of trained staff. The funding problem also put a stranglehold on the maintenance of the buildings, and the daily budget for each patient sunk so low that some basic needs could not be met.
The institution was found guilty of violating patient's constitutional rights in a class-action lawsuit, ruled by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick in 1977. Reports of beatings by staff and other patients, assault, and extended periods of isolation were uncovered, causing residents to regress farther and farther into a mentally disturbed state of mind, instead of becoming bettered by the school. An ex-patient, Roland Johnson, writes about his experiences at Pennhurst in his autobiography, Lost in a Desert World (1994). Many other documents, including abuse reports, patient case studies, and behavior modification reports can be found at El Peecho's Pennhurst website.
In 1968, Bill Baldini of NBC reported on an exposé of Pennhurst called "Suffer the Little Children", which showed the public the conditions behind the closed doors of the hospital, and was instrumental in closing the facility.
Eventually the entire facility closed in 1987 after a de-institutionalization process, which moved the residents to other facilities and group homes. Portions of the campus were re-purposed into a home for veterans, and the PA National Guard found a few buildings to use as an armory, however most of the campus was shuttered and forgotten about.
Talk of what to do with the property has been an ongoing issue since Pennhurst's closure. In 2010, the administration building was renovated to become the "Pennhurst Asylum," a Halloween attraction; the rest of the campus is used for composting by Penn Organic Recycling LLC. Check out preservepennhurst.com for the latest news and rehabilitation efforts.