Pennhurst Insane Asylum was built to educate and care for the feeble Minded and mentally disabled, but in a little less than a decade, it was clear they were doing nothing of the sort.

Pennhurst first opened in 1908, By the mid-1960’s, Pennhurst had been open for fifty years. It housed 2,791 people, most of them children, which was about 900 more than the administration thought the buildings could comfortably accommodate. Despite the high number of patients requiring special care, the state provided the institution with meager funds. There were very few doctors, nurses and orderlies available to meet the patients’ needs. Many patients spent their days and nights trapped in metal cribs in horrid conditions. Others were so desperate for human contact that they went to great lengths for attention by injuring themselves or even smearing themselves with their own feces in hopes of a bath.

 Overworked staff responded to unruly patients by drugging them into submission or chaining them to their beds. Other residents were isolated for such long periods of time that they regressed and lost their will to speak, fight or even to live. One particularly harsh rule chastised patients for biting, If a patient bit someone for the first time they were reprimanded, but if it happened again they would remove all of the patients teeth. Thousands of teeth were removed from the instituted found in a rusty dentist chair that still sits in the tunnels beneath Pennhurst.

 Patients wandered around naked and the floors were covered in urine and feces. There were many patient deaths at Pennhurst, and the patients themselves were quite aware of this and very afraid. None of the patients wanted to be sent to the dreaded Unit 6, as this was “where they kill you”.

 Bill Baldini ran a five-episode exposé of Pennhurst State School and Hospital back in the 1960’s called “Suffer the Little Children.” Inmates of the institution were shown rocking, pacing,twitching, and hitting their head off windows and walls. When one patient was asked by the interviewer what he would like most in the world, the sad and withdrawn reply was simply, “To get out of Pennhurst.” This exposure led to a massive lawsuit. In 1977 Pennhurst’s patients achieved a small victory when the school was found guilty of violating patients’ constitutional rights. While this decision couldn’t undo the past, it certainly made progress for the future. Accusations of dehumanization, of being no help to the disabled, sexual abuse, troubles with members of staff, it was eventually closed in 1986. 

You can watch  Bill Baldini’s  “Suffer the Little Children.” Documentary  HERE