In 1923, the New York state legislature passed a $50 million bond issue for the construction of new mental hospitals. After a disastrous fire at Ward’s Island in 1924, “where scores of mentally afflicted…were burned to death,” $11 million was set aside for a new campus designed specifically to relieve overcrowding at institutions in New York City. The town of Orangeburg, NY was chosen for its proximity to the five boroughs, picturesque surroundings, and “salubrious climate.”
With funding in place, the construction of the Rockland State Hospital for the Insane moved forward at a staggering pace. Townspeople looked on as the monstrous institution swallowed up tract after tract of farms, houses, and undeveloped land. As patients flooded into the new buildings by the thousands, escapes became a regular occurrence. The “potential menace” of this “new and formidable population of undesirable outsiders” was a cause of great concern for locals. Infrequent but grisly murders in the vicinity of the hospital were attributed to “mentally disturbed” escapees. But the real horrors were occurring on the inside, as many of Orangeburg’s citizens could personally attest to–the institution was one of the largest job providers in the county.
The real trouble started during World War II, when lucrative war industry jobs lured much of the staff away and a large number of Rockland’s male attendants left to join the armed forces. As the population soared to nearly 9,000, patient-to-staff ratios plummeted. “The work is hard, disagreeable and frequently dangerous, and the hospital has found it next to impossible to recruit employees.” New hires during this period were often untrained and unqualified. From a 1940s Times article: “An employment bureau in New York City sent a number of applicants here, but most of them were found to be suffering from arthritis, cardiac ailments or “unnatural” temperament and had to be sent home. ‘Some of them should be patients,’ Dr. Blaisdell said.”
Like most all institutions operating during this period, the overcrowding and lack of effective treatment led to systemic abuse and negligence. Until the development of antipsychotic drugs in the 1960s, shock therapy and lobotomy were the only treatment methods available for severe cases of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. As the century progressed and the new drugs became readily available, most patients were able to live independently outside of the asylum system. Since the 1970s, Rockland Psychiatric Center (as it is now known) has predominantly been used as an outpatient facility. By 1999 it housed less than 600 patients. Several new facilities were constructed in more recent years for outpatient care, but vast expanses of the 600 acre campus are entirely empty.
Today, a grid of overgrown streets divides a vast configuration of maze-like buildings known only by number. These were separate wards for men, women, children, and other subsets of the population like the infirm, the violent, and the criminally insane. Others were workshops, auditoriums, power plants, administration buildings, staff housing… the list goes on and on.
Exploring the buildings can be confusing and perilous. One ward’s heavy wooden doors had the nasty habit of slamming shut and refusing to open again, which can be a serious situation when there’s only one or two ways out. My solution was a series of improvised doorstops–beer cans, scraps of debris, whatever I could get my hands on–which doubled as a trail of breadcrumbs to give me a reasonable hope of finding my way out again.
One of Rockland’s most interesting features is the old four lane bowling alley. It’s a heavily trafficked area full of tempting props. Pins, balls, shoes, and trophies have been endlessly moved around, manipulated, and arranged into perfect triangles in the middle of the lanes. While I don’t blame fellow photographers for this sort of thing, it can be disappointing to walk into something that looks more like a stage set than a wild, unpredictable ruin. I’ll take that over the mindless graffiti–some if which I removed with a little Photoshop magic in the images below.
Despite all the modern mischief making, the bowling alley represents the best intentions of the institution to provide quality of life to patients who spent their lives at Rockland. These lanes must have been a welcome distraction from the monotony of asylum living.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Rockland Children’s Hospital, which features an impressive collection of WPA murals.
I outlined New Jersey’s Essex County Hospital in a previous post, but a few months back I made it out a second time to explore a little further. I ended up in the tunnels underneath the wards, where I found a file room stuffed with material dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, near the last years of Essex County Hospital’s operation. The records are scattered in cardboard boxes with no apparent system of organization, many of them overtaken with mold and rot.
Much of what’s been left here is mundane, day-to-day operational notes on staff, time sheets, and maintenance, but some of it is rather enlightening. There are decades’ worth of doctor’s notes, admission records, and log books detailing the daily activities of individual residents, some describe a patient’s entire life story in a single paragraph. The scale of it is truly overwhelming when you start flipping through the files page by page.
As I’ve mentioned before, many of the patterns of neglect well-documented in the age of institutions have shifted to the criminal justice system today. In New York City, the mentally ill now account for 40% of the prison population. To make matters worse, an epidemic of violence against mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island came to light this summer, causing an uproar. Now, the de Blasio administration is pushing for a major $130 million initiative that strikes at the heart of the problem, aiming to keep repeat low-level offenders out of prison and get them into treatment programs. From the Times article: “The changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city, experts said. But they cautioned that nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.”
As we look forward, it’s worth taking a moment to look back. What follows is a tiny sampling of the massive amount of records, artifacts, and ephemera left behind in the wards of Essex County Hospital and that moldy file room in the basement. You can read for yourself, just click to enlarge.