Public Hostage: Public Ransom

Inside Institutional America

©1979 by William Bronston, M.D.

Chapter 1: Social Control: Origins of Willowbrook
Chapter 7: People Become Things—Mass Reduction
Chapter 14: The Radiator
Chapter 17: Living Death… Alone
Chapter 21: Injuries
Chapter 10: For the People—A Choice

Chapter One: Social Control Origins

"Lillian's family visited her in Willowbrook twice a month. Her grandmother, a great, stout woman of obvious strength, always had the most terrible look on her face when she visited. It was like she was just arriving at the scene of a severe auto accident searching for her loved one and terrified at what she would find...

"Lillian alternately crouched near a wall or lay heaped asleep on the stone floor or dashed about the ward menacing everybody like a great wingless bird. Always alone, moaning, drifting here and there searching for something—broken lips, disfigured nose, matted hair, bare feet, coarse institution pullover dress protruding from below the white canvas and brass-ringed restraint."

In 1938, the New York State Legislature recognized a need for additional accommodations for people labeled mentally retarded. At that time, the greater New York area was being served by one institution, Letchworth Village, located well north of the city in the woods of Rockland County. Despite World War II, $12,000,000 was spent to build a new institution on Staten Island, which was completed in 1942.

Keep door locked

The needs of wartime required that the new institution be used by the Veterans Administration as a general hospital and prisoner-of-war setting. Thus, Willowbrook was first named Halloran General Hospital until 1947, when the intended purpose to house the retarded was restored. Ten people from Letchworth and ten people from Wassaic State Schools in New York were transferred to begin the geometric expansion of Willowbrook.

There were over 60 buildings on the grounds: 11 two-story brick rectangles, each with four wards; 7 one-story brick buildings, also with four compartments; a six-story, giant X-shaped building slated to be the hospital. (In the future, 27 buildings in all would house residents.) The rest included supply and logistic services buildings and 18 homes for the doctors and top administrators, comfortably spread over gently rolling hills with a street allowing them exit and entry in the back—away from the visibility of the residents' buildings. As the VA phased out its operations, Willowbrook expanded until April, 1951, when it took over the entire facility. Located 12 miles from Manhattan and occupying 382 acres of suburban Staten Island, Willowbrook was the first "school" planned to accept and treat children under five, as well as older people labeled retarded. The first two infants were admitted in July, 1948.

It was the sixth state school opened in the state of New York, with the existing schools already 40 percent overcrowded. The 1949 per-person maintenance cost was $834 per year. By 1965, this cost had risen to $1,800. By 1975, it was just under $17,000 per person.