Struggles for Institutionalized People’s Rights in Mental Health and Corrections

AHA Session 174
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Rendezvous Trianon (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Susan Burch, Middlebury College
This session will include four 15-minute presentations, with one 30-minute discussion after the first two presentations, and a second 30-minute discussion at the end.
The Audience

Session Abstract

2015 marks the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), federal legislation that set out to protect the rights of people in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes and developmental centers. While CRIPA had mixed results, its passage in 1980 marked an important moment in the history of civil rights for prisoners and individuals with disabilities living in state custody. Most often, scholars study disability and carceral spaces separately. This panel bridges that divide by showing how struggles for the human rights of institutionalized people in mental health and correctional facilities overlapped in the late twentieth century. This interdisciplinary approach holds particular importance, as prisons in the U.S. today stand as “the new asylums” because of the disproportionately high rates of people with mental health disorders living in them.

The panel brings together scholars rooted in the fields of social theory, medicine, criminology, and legal studies, who explore how prisoners’ and patients’ rights activists and advocates coalesced to argue for increased protections for people in state custody between the 1960s and 1990s. In his paper, “The Intolerable Dr. Rose: Psychiatry, Prisons and the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP),” disability studies scholar Michael Rembis argues that the GIP and Michel Foucault juxtaposed theoretical examinations of madness, incarceration and power-knowledge to critique incarceration. These intellectual-activists reflected a broader political moment in the 1970s when many people viewed mental illness, incarceration, and disability as intertwined.

Alan Gomez and Anne Parsons look at the calls for human rights by institutionalized people and their advocates. In “’With Dignity Intact’: Rainbow Coalitions, Control Units and Struggles for Human Rights in the U.S. Federal Prison System, 1969-1974,” Gomez argues that an inter-racial social movement of federal prisoners collaborated with activists, medical professionals and journalists to stop behavior modification programs and establish a set of human rights for prisoners. In “Leaving the Cuckoo’s Nest: Challenging Incarceration in Psychiatric Hospitals,” Parsons studies how patients in a hospital for the criminally insane, most of whom were African American, similarly teamed with civil rights attorneys to challenge their involuntary commitments. Their victories in turn hastened the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals.

But even with these gains, the reforms had significant limitations. While prisoners and psychiatric patients did receive a host of rights, the sheer numbers of incarcerated people increased dramatically during this time. Amanda Hughett argues for the basis of these limits in her paper, “Silencing the Cell Block: The Prison Litigation Explosion and the Long History of CRIPA, 1973-1996.” In it, she reveals how CRIPA worked to restrict inmates' access to courts even as it empowered federal officials to intervene in state institutions on imprisoned people's behalf.

These papers bring together the history of disability and incarceration at a moment when the U.S. faces a crisis of mass incarceration that particularly affects individuals with disabilities. The social theories, legal changes and activist movements of the late twentieth century offer us an invaluable window into the possibilities and challenges of human rights advocacy for institutionalized people today.

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