A therapeutic society coins the most gruesome euphemisms for its monstrous failures. "Snake Pit" and "Cuckoo's Nest," for example. Now "Cold Storage" tells the chilling story of how the State of Pennsylvania hides some of its criminally insane in a hideous corner of hell.
Wendell Rawls Jr. first wrote of the Farview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The book continues this story. Treatment turns to terror, punishment is the crime, and shelter becomes a warehouse for dead storage. No one cares. Nonfiction becomes a horror tale, "a litany of neglect, of men the world, and maybe God, had forgotten about."
One inmate, Paul Kirchoff, when charged with disturbing the peace after an argument with his brother, had been sentenced to 30 days in jail. He hesitated at the jailhouse door; the jailer gave him a shove. He shoved back. His sentence was extended to 28 years, nearly all of it in Farview. He never saw a lawyer or a therapist, but some think Kircoff was lucky. He got out alive.
Many men at Farview were beaten to death by guards, or made to participate in human cockfights for the entertainment of the guards, who put down bets on their favorites. Inmates were deprived of toilet paper, homosexually abused by the guards and other patients, and confined to narrow, solitary rooms for years. Few could avoid the mess-hall soup though most knew the recipe called for one special ingredient, human urine.
With the dramiatic intensity of a novel, "Cold Storage" looks at a public system of brutality that could, and no doubt does, repeat itself in other places.
The nagging question prevades: How could such things happen? By his own estimate, Rawls talked to more than 200 patients, guards, doctors and lawyers, but came away less interested in examining the complex issues of criminal insanity than he is in getting us to experience the pain of that diagnosis he become the patients' impatient advocate, but he advocates without intellectual toughness. Therein lies the flaw. Evil fascinates, but the relentless cataloguing of the lurid and grotesque details of institutional inhumanity, however meticulously done, eventually palls, even repels.
By failing to examine more carefully a system that permits the creation of Farview -- that hybrid injustice that mixes psychiatry and the law -- Rawls accomplishes only part of his stated purpose, "to prevent abuses from occurring in the future."
Farview inmates were trapped between conflicting public notions of "morality" and "utility," as well as the personal emotions of pity and fear. By finding these men either incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty of their crimes "by reason of insanity," the judges who sent them to Farview could wash their hands of responsibility. And so could society.
In Rawl's impassioned account, the guards, ignorant of psychiatric matters, become the medical missionaries of the court's will, armed with hypodermic needles filled with psychoactive drugs, to be applied indiscriminately to maintain control. It's the only treatment administered at Farview. If anything can be said in defense of the gurads, it is that they too are driven by fear -- fear of the inmates, fear of losing their jobs. Many were miners, taking work at the hospital when the mines closed. They could keep their jobs only as long as the hospital kept patients. They also shared a common mandate with the hospital superintendent and local politicians -- to keep things running smoothly with as much state money as they could get and as little state interference as they could get by with.
Rawls gives us his glimpses of motives. An investigation of Farview by University of Pennsylvania law students challenged state laws and welfare-department regulations as unconstitutional because they denied due process. After examining records of hundreds of patients, one law student reached a harsh conclusion. The state had only one message: "Make sure these people never bother us."
When Rawl's investigative reporting began to make waves, every inmate was examined by a psychiatrist. The hospital changed administrations and acquired new staff; a lawyer was hired, full-time, to answer patient questions. Hundreds were released; other transferred to less-brutal hospitals. Those who were left got pay telephones, emergency life-saving equipment, and a "patient Bill of Rights." Some judges nevertheless decline to commit men to Farview.
Farview's new administrators admit abuses in the past but cannot understand why Rawls continues to write about them. Most of the reasons are set down here in black and white.