Photo: San Bernardino History & Railroad Museum
I guess when I heard that the Patton State Hospital was opening its museum for tours, I didn't realize that it was still an open – and fully occupied – mental hospital.
I also didn't realize that it's a mental hospital for the criminally insane, though they make it sound less scary by calling it a "forensic" mental hospital. All those people who get off on an insanity plea get sent here instead of to jail.
Not that this isn't a prison. Because it very much is. But unlike prison, there's no early release – no time off for good behavior. It's very hard to prove that you've returned to sanity – even if you really have – so it's likely that if the judicial system sends you here, you've got to ride out your entire sentence.
The hospital opened up in 1893 as the Highland Insane Asylum in the city of Highland, just outside of San Bernardino, California. It was renamed Patton after one of its board members in 1927, and its current address lists the city as Patton, CA. But Patton isn't a city exactly: it's just the hospital. It's that big.
Unfortunately, the only sign of the original brick insane asylum is an old train depot near the front entrance of the grounds, a relic from the narrow gauge railroad that used to bring goods and supplies (like food) in from the outside.
The entire hospital was once a stunning red brick compound, but nature took its toll on it, and the original buildings were demolished because of devastating earthquake damage.
Now, the cluster of mid-century buildings are decidedly institutional, though somewhat less foreboding than the original brick castle on a hill.
Visitors can come see their relatives, but there is a strict visitation policy, and the Department of Corrections closely guards the gate – photographs of which are verboten.
Inmates are kept in – and the uninvited public out – by a razor wire fence...
...and if anybody gets in with improper credentials, or loses their ID or keys while inside, the whole place goes on lockdown. Nobody goes in; nobody gets out.
The one area that is accessible by the public is the museum, which has opened in a former cottage for hospital staff from the 1920s.
It looks a bit more like a chapel...
...and inside, it's a memorial to the past life of the insane asylum...
...and the patients that it locked up.
When searching for historical artifacts, museum curators and hospital historians uncovered a trove of personal letters and postcards...
...as well as newspaper clippings and other ephemera, stashed away in old sugar bags, and now on view.
Other personal artifacts found onsite – that still come to the ground surface after a good rain – include small bottles, jewelry, and lipstick cases, though it's more likely these were the possessions of nurses and other staff, and not of the patients.
You get a sense of what life was like here for the patients, but it's only a glimpse into their daily lives. In the early 20th century, psychiatry wasn't even a thing yet, and so most of the patients were being treated in the field of "mental hygiene."
And that broad definition meant that there were too many patients. Serving multiple counties and accepting patients with both legitimate psychiatric problems and other issues like addiction – as well as women who were no longer wanted by their husbands – Patton was so overcrowded that at one point, patients were sleeping outside, without any bedding or shelter. But that also meant that the large institution had access to plenty of manpower: they put their patients to work.
In fact, the inmates at Patton created a self-sustaining community by growing their own food, building their own furniture, and making shoes and other items. Nowadays, such utensils and tools would be considered weapons, and never put into the hands of the criminally insane. Not to mention, under current labor laws, Patton would have to pay minimum wage to any patients to whom it assigned chores.
But back then, work was part of the therapy – doctors thought that encouraging the mentally ill to be productive would also make them better.
The sad fact is, this was a place that also made its patients worse. [Ed Note 07/17/15: Conditions were bad enough at Patton to make Nurse Agnes Richards flee and to inspire her to found Rockhaven Sanitarium for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.]
They were restrained in hydrotherapy tubs mostly as a punishment for bad behavior, and water that was either freezing cold or scorchingly hot was the most common cause of patient death.
In its displays, the museum has included artifacts from some of the most controversial procedures performed at Patton, including a lobotomy pick. Today, patients are allowed to refuse treatment, but it was only last year in 2014 that California banned one compulsory procedure: forced sterilization. Both prisons and hospitals coerced its patients into becoming surgically sterilized to prevent the reproduction of the diseased and disabled – a kind of population cleansing normally only attributed to hate groups like the Nazis.
Still performed today is another barbaric practice that should have gone the way of bloodletting and drilling holes in your head. Although it's not common, patients with mental illness still receive electroshock therapy, which induces seizures to relieve symptoms of psychiatric disorders.
Until 1934, over 2000 patients who passed away during their stay at Patton were buried in an onsite cemetery. Although the hospital has a list of all those who were interred there, no one knows exactly who is where – not only because it's likely that the bodies were stacked to save room, but also because the markers were dug up by some well-meaning landscapers trying to clear out the overgrowth.
Visiting the museum, it's clear that the Patton State Hospital has been and still is a business of incarceration. It is fraught with violence, mysterious deaths, and all the trappings of a dreadfully haunted crime scene. And even today, psychiatry and medication management for mental illness is primarily a practice of guesswork and trial and error. Doctors rarely know why or how a treatment or a drug alleviates or ameliorates – only that it does...in some people.
Photo Essay: Rockhaven Sanitarium, Closed to Public, Exterior
Photo Essay: Rockhaven Sanitarium, Closed to Public, Interior
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