Fowler, Analysis 1 – Asylums aren’t prisons, right?

I got shaken up while reading the assigned chapters of “NeuroTribes : The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” this week.  Right off the bat, I was filled with disgust. Chapter 9, which is entitled, “The Rain Man Effect” starts off by talking about a man named Bill.  At a young age, Bill was seen as a risk to local community and he was shipped off to an asylum. It wasn’t the fact that Bill was sent away from his family that shook me up, it was the fact that the patients of the asylum were referred to as “ inmates” and that if a patient was to be sent home for the weekend, he or she would be “ paroled”. While reading this, I became utterly upset. Bill and his colleagues aren’t criminals. As far as I know, Bill wasn’t an arsonist, he wasn’t a murderer, in short, he’s not a criminal. As lovers of the English language, we all will attest to the fact that word’s matter.  The old proverb of “sticks and stones may break my bones but word’s will never hurt me” is untrue, words do hurt and sometimes people can never heal from words that have been spoken to them. Later on in the chapter, we find out that Bill becomes a very successful man (He  owns and manages a coffee shop on a university campus, he also inspires a movie). In other words, Bill wasn’t unintelligent. When the staff at the asylum called him and the other patients, “inmates”, he knew what the term usually referred to.

Not only did the asylum use criminal/ justice system jargon, it also is described like a prison. Silberman writes, “the high fences on the outskirts of the facility defined the horizons of his universe” ( Silberman, 356). Personally, if you tell me about an institution that has high fences surrounding it, I normally think of a prison or a jail, not a hospital. The patients at the asylum were literally stuck there, 24/7. There may have been grounds to wander but even then looking at the same thing over and over again gets boring after a short while. Just like real inmates, the patients at the asylum were stuck on the ground. These men and women were not criminals and therefore should not have been treated as such.

Fun Fact:   Ironically while doing research, I found out that the asylum and the grounds of the asylum that Bill went to (The Faribault State School for the Feebleminded and Epileptic) is currently used as a state prison (Minnesota Department of Corrections).

To make matters even worse, Bill wasn’t treated like a human either. It is safe to say, that he was treated like a convict.  Silberman writes, “He had never been taught how to tell time or handle money, and had never received proper dental care” ( Silberman, 356).  According to the Minnesota History Center, one of the reasons why Faribault was established was to train patients in order for them to have a normal life (State Hospitals: Historical Patient Records: Faribault State School & Hospital). If the asylum’s mission was to train their patients how to have a normal life then they would have taught their patients how to do the basic skills that most learn in elementary school.

The Faribault State School for the Feebleminded and Epileptic was a hospital not a prison. However, Bill’s experience at the hospital makes it seem more like a correctional facility then a place where people go to get better. It’s scary to know what Bill experienced probably wasn’t an atypical experience. Mental asylums around the country were probably just like Faribault.


“Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault .” Minnesota Department of

Corrections.Minnesota Department of Corrections, n.d. Web. 7

Sept. 2016


“Patient Records: Faribault State School & Hospital.” Minnesota History Center.

Minnesota History Center: Gale Family Library, n.d. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.

Rice County Historical Society, Fairbault. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.


3 thoughts on “Fowler, Analysis 1 – Asylums aren’t prisons, right?

  1. Amanda R

    I agree that the conditions of mental institutions were similar to that of prisons, which is somewhat ironic since individuals who were mentally ill in the 1800s were originally placed in prisons and then “saved” when asylums were created. But what people don’t realize is that psychiatric hospitals today still feel prison like – and this is speaking from personal experience. They aren’t happy places.

    While I haven’t personally been admitted into a mental institution, I have visited family at one on a number of occasions. It wasn’t a fun experience (which is to be expected). The family member I visited was at a high-security hospital for patients who are at risk of harming themselves or others. When I walked into the building I went to the lobby and let the staff know I was there for a visitation and to drop off clothing for the patient (patients are allowed to wear their own clothes). I had to sign forms, prove I was who I said I was, confirm that I wasn’t carrying any weapons on me, and then I had to lock my purse and keys in a locker in the lobby. I was only allowed to bring the clothing in. This is to make sure the patients can’t get their hands on anything dangerous.

    I was then led through a series of heavy, electronic security doors that instantly locked upon closing. They could only be opened by staff. They were the type of doors you see in prison films. I finally entered a waiting room inside the ward. The receptionist took the clothing I had brought and thoroughly examined it. She removed the drawstrings from the pants and the hoody. I didn’t even think to do that; I didn’t know that patients would attempt to hurt themselves and others with strings, but it makes sense (strangling).

    While waiting in the waiting room two things happened – First, a man came in strapped to a gurney. I have no idea what he did, but there was no way he was getting out of that thing. The second thing to happen was a patient’s failed escape attempt. He ran for the door, which was pointless since it was locked. He was stopped and brought back to his room.

    The ward itself was white on white on beige. To keep them from hurting anyone, patients aren’t allowed to have anything, so their rooms were most likely just a bed (visitors weren’t allowed in bedrooms, only visiting rooms). The visiting rooms and counseling rooms were that same bland coloring, which made it almost look like a normal hospital, except for the security doors.
    As for the staff, they weren’t rude, but they weren’t friendly either. The hospital was (and still is) understaffed and as a result they employees are all overworked. Long shifts and being attacked by patients on a regular basis doesn’t put you in a pleasant mood. One nurse I spoke with said that she has been bitten and punched more times than she can remember. Also, because they are so busy, the staff can’t put in the time needed for each patient. It felt less like a hospital to help people and more like a daycare that only cares about keeping them alive until they can get rid of them.

    As far as I know patients aren’t treated like garbage there. But I can’t deny that it didn’t feel a bit like a prison. The apathetic staff, the bland walls, the high security…etc.


  2. racheltrisch

    Like you, I also had my eyes opened to the struggles of those living with autism both today and in the past from what we had discussed in class and from the readings. Before we covered it, I had no idea that Rain Man had such a powerful influence on the public in terms of educating and understanding autism. I totally agree with you on the shock factor in chapter 9 regarding the treatment of the autistic man Bill. It is very sad to be able to look back and see the negative results that can occur from our own ignorance.
    While we have made quite a bit of progress since then, however, there is still much work that needs to be done surrounding the stigma that comes along with mental illness. While I have never spent time in an institution, I have also had family members who have spent time in mental hospitals, and have seen first hand the difference between the way mental health is generally viewed and treated compared to physical health.
    While I was doing the reading for this week, I decided to look up some additional articles to gain more background knowledge and I found an interesting article that covers a new approach to caring for the mentally ill, which is being used it Italy. A man named Franco Basaglia convinced the Italian government to pass a law that would require the shutting down of all the institutions, saying that Italy needed, “model that respected the dignity and freedom of the mentally ill; their right to live as citizens in the community; and the great therapeutic value of engaging them in its daily activities… The focus is on the person; the illness is put ‘in brackets.’ Long stays in hospital never treat mental illness; they often make it chronic and promote demoralization, along with new and worse symptoms.” (Frances, A. J.)
    Franco was one of the few minds at the time to grasp that those struggling with mental health were still just as human as you or I and needed to be treated as such if they were to ever stand a chance at recovery or find a way to cope with their illness in a healthy way. He designed a new system of mental health hospitals into four different districts, and made them as inviting as possible for all involved, saying, “Families and friends are welcomed into an environment that is creatively designed and attractively furnished. This pleasant club-like atmosphere is normalizing—you usually can’t tell who is staff, who is patient, who is family or visitor. Recognizing that recreation and pleasure are an important part of life, the centers include time and facilities for parties, trips, exercise, art and theater workshops.” (Frances, A.J.)
    Basaglia understood that struggles with mental health not only affect the one with the disease or disability, but the entire family and social network as well. 35 years after the opening of Basaglia’s center, it still runs today and has been “designated by the World Health Organization as its pilot collaboration center for deinstitutionalization and community mental health care.” (Frances, A.J.) and provides training and advice to centers all around the world.
    A model similar to this would be very beneficial in the United States. While we have come a long way from the days of institutions, I have seen how difficult it still can be to treat and cope with mental illness. This topic is one that needs to become a priority in the United States again, and hopefully we can continue to learn and advance.

    Frances, A. J. (2015, December 28). World’s Best and Worst Places to be Mentally Ill. In Psychology Today. Retrieved from
    Calvin College openURL resolver


  3. schillererica

    I agree with yours and others’ assessments on this matter; we have definitely come a long way in our treatment of people who live with autism and other mental diversities, but I personally found chapter eleven, which addressed the modern perspectives of both the neurotypical and (perhaps much more importantly) the neurodiverse, spoke very compellingly on this matter.

    Throughout this reading, the way the author consistently addresses (and frequently prioritizes) the perspectives of the autistic, rather those of their allies, turned the discussion on its head for me and gave me, a non-autistic person, access to these neurodiverse individuals that I’ve never had before. The perspectives of those like Temple Grandin, Jim Sinclair, and Ari Ne’eman, revealed the intimate realities faced when one is different from the “normal” in a way that made the issues we face in this modern age starkly obvious.

    Even those neurodiverse individuals who aren’t confined to home or institutional environments face a prison of an entirely different kind: the prison created for them by society. They struggle to make their own choices under the pressure placed upon them by not only the bigots of the world, but by those who would call themselves their allies. We have made a lot of progress, certainly, but one of the consistent plights of neurodiverse individuals–autistic and otherwise–always seems to be the misconceptions created by our society’s lasting stigma against mental illness. The separation of autistic individuals into a category considered “lesser” or “unfortunate” undermines their efforts to thrive and succeed, whatever their goals may be. I find it frustrating that our discussion of mental illness is consistently tainted by this perception that those struggling with it are somehow sad and pitiable–pity is the last thing any individual, autistic or otherwise, needs when they are struggling to find their place in this world. Life is already hard enough being neurodiverse; it’s hardly helpful to dwell on the fact that those difficulties exist.



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