Community Corrections: Rehabilitating Patients and Prisoners at Home in the 1960s

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Mississippi Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Anne E. Parsons, University of Illinois at Chicago
In the wake of World War II, psychiatrists began embracing community-centered rehabilitation programs. By the 1960s, psychiatrists across the country advocated for new programs to rehabilitate the mentally disabled in their own communities, culminating in Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act of 1963. This turn towards community rehabilitation led to the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals and prisons beginning in the 1960s.

I study de-institutionalization at two nationally-known Philadelphia facilities: the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry, and the Eastern State Penitentiary and its farm branch. I base this “tale of two institutions” on archival research in: the newspaper collections at Temple University, government manuscripts at the Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Daniel Blain papers. Blain oversaw the creation of many community-based services, and the release of hundreds of patients. Blain’s work became a state and national model, and optimism in community-based rehabilitation permeated the language of psychiatrists and state officials. 

The Pennsylvania Legislature voted to close Eastern State, giving the state an opportunity to create new correctional programs. Rather than construct maximum security beds, the Joint State Government Commission (JSGC) and the Governor’s Justice Committee (GJC) called for smaller, minimum-security treatment and pre-release facilities. Counseled by corrections reformers with ties to the psychiatric world, corrections officials at the Eastern State Penitentiary farm branch established pre-release centers, furloughs, half-way houses, and work-release programs, and prison populations reached the lowest level since the 1930s. 

The parallel trajectories of these two facilities reflect the great impact that psychiatry had on corrections in the twentieth century, and how the community mental health movement partially “deinstitutionalized” Pennsylvania’s prison system. The de-institutionalization of mental hospitals continued into the 1970s, but the de-institutionalization of prisons brought a backlash that hastened the building of more and larger prisons in the late 1970s and 1980s.