Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Life in the Institution

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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The Frank M. Johnson Federal Buildingand U.S. Courthouse
 in Montgomery, Ala. (Library of Congress Photo)
1n 1971 when the court order came down in the Wyatt vs. Stickney case, change would reverberate, not just at Partlow State School and Bryce Hospital, but in mental health institutions across the country. United States District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., of the Middle District of Alabama ruled that patients in all three state mental health institutions (Bryce Hospital, Partlow State School, and Searcy Hospital) were being denied their “constitutional right to treatment.” The court stated that there were three requisites to effective treatment:  "(1) a humane psychological and physical environment, (2) qualified staff in numbers sufficient to administer adequate treatment and (3) individualized treatment plans." (The Yale Law Journal) With the institution’s failure to meet these requisites, Partlow State School began the processes both of institutional reform and of de-institutionalization of many of its residents.

The St. Andrew’s Foundation was organized at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church under the leadership of the Reverend Francis Walter of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Organized in 1974, its purpose was to provide training in independent living for residents coming out of Partlow State School as a result of the federal court order.  The goal was to allow residents to live as independently as possible within the community. In the early days of it operation, much of the independent living training dealt with helping the residents to “unlearn” some of the institutional behaviors that had resulted from living at Partlow State School, behaviors that had been adaptive in an institution but not helpful or normal for life in the community.

In my conversations with Dorothy, I was able to see a little bit of what life was like inside the institution, how residents sometimes lived in conflict with one another and with staff, and how residents sometimes collaborated together to find some freedom of activity in spite of being under the watchful eye of hospital staff. I was surprised and amused to hear how residents managed to make their own butter in the days before homogenized milk.

Keeping Possessions Safe

"There was one girl, she would stay up at night. She loved to dip snuff. She would go into people’s packages and things and steal money. If she got a chance she would get a can of snuff. Every time they would catch her she would just scream her head off. I don’t remember stealing anything, but I probably did. I stole a few things after I was discharged [from Partlow].

"I never did get caught with ‘em. I was bad to get candy, now snuff – I never did care for snuff. One time I had a big jar of coffee that this girl gave to me for writing her letters for her to her grandmother. We had these old army lockers to keep things in, and they locked with the same key. This one girl stole my big jar of coffee and put her little jar in my locker. I caught her and I got that jar out and went and told her, “Give me my coffee. She started screaming and everything. The attendant came over and I said she stole my coffee. The attendant took it and put it in the locker room. We didn’t get it until we settled down. I let one of the attendants keep my coffee for me.

"I had a fit one time when I had a picture of Elvis Presley when he first started “Jail House Rock” It was a lady that give it to me. That old man, Mr. Hood Ball was his name, he took it and wouldn’t let me have it and I had a fit. They had to take me to the Main Girls’ Building. I wouldn’t even go back to the laundry because he took my picture of Elvis Presley.  He worked down there a long time, I reckon he retired.  He never did give that picture back – I don’t what happened to it.

"One time I had these rhinestone ear bobs. I was about 19 years old. I would wear those ear bobs and I mean I thought I was the cock of the walk."

Friendships and Peer relations

"There was a girl used to write my letters before I ever learned to write. She would write my letters to my legal guardian. 

"After I grew up I learned how to roll hair and pin-curl it. I used to roll this girl’s hair. We used to make hair rollers out of old snuff boxes and brown paper. We would get this old red crepe paper and use it for rough and lipstick. They used to wouldn’t let us primp up or nothin’. I mean they wouldn’t even allow us to dance with the boys until later on over the years. 

"If they caught you embroidering or crocheting they would take it up. I guess they did that because they were afraid we’d get mad and stick one another with the needles. I used to watch a girl tat with a tat and pearl. I don’t know how she did it. She would tat lace – I never could understand crochet either.

"There used to be a girl who would wake me up in the morning. I mean she’d get me up at 4:00 o’clock. She would wake me up to go to the bathroom with her. She’d want to kiss me and make love to me and I wouldn’t let her, and she would get so mad."  

Staff and Staff Relationships

"They used to be real mean, some of ‘em.  I remember when we would be a-laughing and talking. We weren’t supposed to be laughing and talking because they’d have us on silence. And if they caught you talking they’d make us stand on one foot with both hands up in the air. If you put your foot down you had to pick the other foot up and stand there that much longer.

"They didn’t like for us to talk. We used to slip around and talk.  They had four little round tables at each end of the hall and we would sit around them and talk.

"The most important people in my life were some of the attendants, and the most important one of them, her name was Aunt Lily Wilson. One Saturday morning we went to breakfast and she fell out of her chair with a heart attack and she died. I saw her when she fell out of the chair. That night I thought about her and I thought, “She’s with Jesus.” I don’t remember how old I was, but that’s what I was thinking. That night, when I went to sleep, I dreamed that I could see her. She was really good to us. I called her Aunt Lily because she was so sweet. She would always talk to me about Jesus.  She really taught me to love Jesus.

"There were some, there was an old attendant one time – I was talking and she told us to be quiet. For some reason she didn’t like me so well. She took me into the bathroom to duck me under the shower-bath. She used to take some of them and hold them under that water a good while. She couldn’t get me in there. She tried to put an old rag in my mouth and when she did I bit her on the hand. She went over there and told them she got dog-bit coming on duty. If I’d have told them, they’d have probably fired her. But I didn’t see nobody to tell. She was really, really mean.  Her mother worked there, too, but her mother wasn’t as hateful as she was.

"One time I went to the big dining room. I was doing something and a lady got on to me. She made me mad. We had these old tin cups. I threw my cup across the dining room, trying to hit her with it, and somebody told me I was just showing out. I said “Showing out, nothing! You shut up! I’m taking up for myself, I don’t care what you do!” I got sent back to the main building and I had to sit under a table until time to go to bed. There was a lady there named Jessie McCain, she was an old black nurse. She’d always make us sit under the table if we didn’t do what she told us to. Then I got to where I never did argue with folks. After I grew up I hardly ever did argue with nobody no more. I think I was about 24 or 25 [when I figured out I didn’t have to argue back]."

 “When the Cat is Away”

"We used to go into the bathroom at night and make coffee. We didn’t have a coffee maker; they wouldn’t let us have one. We would get clean rags and put the coffee in them. Then we’d hold it under the hot water from the sink and let it run into a glass. Then we would strain it and drink it. Sometimes we would get that instant coffee and go in the shower and make it with the hot tub water. It was real good if you had cream to go with it. Sometimes we would sneak the packets out, and sometime we would get the grounds out of the coffee maker in the dining room.

"We used to get that old red butter color, and they would give us some kind of stuff that looked like butter. Well, we would sneak out some cartons of milk and we would put the milk in a jar to churn the milk into butter from it. You’d have to shake it up and down a long time before it would turn to butter. Then we would take the butter out and mix that other stuff we had with it.  Somebody would always look out for the attendants, because if we got caught doing anything, they would always make us take it back to the dining room, or they would throw it out.

"I used to love churning butter with an old fashioned churn. We didn’t have a churn there, but my Uncle Will and Aunt Alma had a churn. Uncle Will was my mother’s brother. I used to churn with that when I was a little girl."

After School and Work Activities

"Sometimes we would go out into the yard, and sometimes we went out and sat on the benches.    If they caught us laughing or talking, they would make us stand on one foot and hold both hands up in the air. If we put our foot down, we had to stand there that much longer.  Sometimes they would make you stand in the corner, or put you in the closet and shut the door.

"They would make us go to the okra patch and we hated to go, or they’d make us go to the vegetable room to clean vegetables and we hated to go there, too. Me and this other girl got out one time then they caught us when we got back to the room. She made is go right back over there.

"They wouldn’t let us take a break until we got slap through. One time when I was workin’ in the vegetable room, I raked up a pile of turnip greens in the floor, sat down and urinated in ‘em and then I got up. I said, “That’s what you get for not letting me go to the bathroom.” We used to sneak and slip potatoes and lemons, and everything out – weenies and bread.  In the winter time, we would put the weenies on the radiator and roast ‘em and eat ‘em.  If the attendants caught us, they’d take ‘em all up.

"One time I took some meat patties out of the dining room. I had a muumuu dress with big pockets and I put those meat patties in my pockets. I got caught with them, and this lady told me to go back to the dining room and put those meat patties back on the table. I thought, 'My, my. You can’t have nothin’ around here.'"


Reference cited:
"The Wyatt Case: Implementation of a Judicial Decree Ordering Institutional Change," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 84: 1338, 1975.

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