This is an abandoned and left nearly intact mental facility in Pennsylvania called Pennhurst State School and Hospital.
It was closed by the government for human violations of the mentally challenged in the 80’s and now sits virtually the same since the day it closed.
I had visited this private property with a photojournalist colleague late August 2008. We went in a single vehicle for a documentary trip without seeing a single person.
I felt safe but I also felt really freaked out by the crisp near still air that seemed alive with stories. I felt the peeling paint on the walls talking to me, you could imagine what it must have been for the mentally challenged patients.
There is a cemetery on the grounds and a maze of paths with interconnecting brick buildings from another time. At first glance vines, bushes, trees are all significantly overgrown and the outdoor patio seems at peace.
Not until I entered did I experience goose bumps up my arms and neck. This image is from inside looking out onto a courtyard between buildings.
Still, I had one more day in the area, so the following day I returned without my friend. I entered the same drive where signs are posted No Trespassing – that is always a given working as a photojournalist. There are locations that are deserving to be documented but with some challenges to get the images.
I am not there longer than ten minutes before I hear a vehicle drive up behind me. I have this manner while I am shooting to remain calm even in the face of fear. I was fearful because when I turned around it was a man dressed from head to toe in military fatigues.
He proceeds to ask me, “so what are you doing out here, you know that there are signs posted everywhere that say no trespassing, don’t you?” I easily reply that I love architecture and just want a couple images, did he mind if I shoot for a few more minutes. His reply is something I will never forget, he said, “you know I am just worried for your safety out here since you are a woman.” Perhaps he was there to play some psychological games with me and scare me. I don’t know but he said I could stay for a bit more and he drove away.
I hightailed it in and out of multiple buildings and shot and shot, frame after frame because I didn’t think I would get another chance. I found the building where electro-shock therapy was delivered, I didn’t go in. I started crying, I was so scared. I called my photojournalist friend and he said, “if you are scared you can leave.” His statement fueled me to an about face, I refused to be scared, but I was, but I wasn’t going to leave because of it.
The allegations of abuse led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States called, Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 446 F.Supp. 1295 (E.D. Pa., 1977), which asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and education. Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of Pennhurst, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, violating the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments, as well as the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966. While the District Court agreed that certain of the patient’s rights had been violated, upon appeal, the case was eventually overturned at the U.S. Supreme Court which found that the federal courts cannot order state officials to comply with state laws, due to the Eleventh Amendment.
Later as I was driving off the grounds I followed by an unmarked government vehicle that stopped me outside the gates of Pennhurst. It was at the end of my day at dusk and with my window cracked I answered a couple questions like, “so are you from Florida, why are you up here?” I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. My photojournalist friend said never say you are traveling alone, always say you are meeting your husband back at the hotel. That day, I did, and was let go.