​Pennhurst State School and Hospital - Spring City, PA

History of Pennhurst:

Pennhurst opened in 1908 as a school for the mentally and physically disabled.  It was originally named Pennhurst Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic.  Though the facility closed in 1987, its haunting past is a reminder of a place and time that gave birth to a civil rights movement all on its own.

Pennhurst was one of the largest institutions of its kind in Pennsylvania.  Its residents were either committed by court order or dropped off by overwhelmed parents.  Sadly, many of these children were abandoned by their families to become wards of the state.  While some patients could care for themselves many more suffered from severe disabilities.  Those patients who couldn't care for themselves became the school's most vulnerable victims.

Pennhurst was often accused of dehumanization and was said to have provided no help to the mentally challenged.  Many of the residents suffered physical deterioration and intellectual and behavioral regression during their residency at Pennhurst.  The average length of stay for the residents was more than 35 years and most I.Q.'s fell below 35.  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.  Restraints along with Psychotropic drugs (i.e, tranquilizers) were used as control measures in lieu of adequate staffing.  The physical environment at Pennhurst was hazardous to the residents, both physically and psychologically.  There was often excrement and urine on ward floors and the living areas did not meet minimal professional standards for cleanliness.  Outbreaks of pinworms and infectious disease were common.  In addition to neglect and deplorable living conditions, there were many reports of abuse by the staff to the residents.  In 1968, a young reporter named Bill Baldini brought cameras into Pennhurst for the televised investigative report.  The five-part report was the first time that the conditions inside Pennhurst had ever been exposed to the public.  What the world saw in Baldini's report was a cramped, filthy, prison where the mentally handicapped were left to rot, in many cases strapped to their beds, with no hope of rehabilitation.  Those higher- functioning individuals who had the misfortune of being grouped with the severely disabled had seen their condition decline, lessening their chances of successfully re-entering society.

In 1974, these allegations led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman, which asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and an education.  Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of the school, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and all other residents of Pennhurst.  The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, that these living conditions violated the fourteenth amendment, and the Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments.  After a 32-day trial and an immense investigation, prosecutors concluded that the conditions at Pennhurst were not only dangerous, with physical and mental abuse of its patients, but also inadequate for the care and rehabilitation for the mentally retarded.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also concluded that the physical, mental, and intellectual skills of most patients had deteriorated while in Pennhurst.

In 1987, Pennhurst closed its doors, and began a program of de-institutionalism that lasted several years.  Pennhurst fell into complete ruin as the complex was shut down.  Buildings were abandoned as they were, with patient's clothes and belonging strewn about.  Furniture, cabinets and medical equipment, and even Christmas decorations were left to decay.  Once the buildings were closed, they began to rapidly deteriorate from lack of heating, moisture, invasion and vandalism.\