David Rothman

Recent Articles

The Rehabilitation of the Asylum

The shift of mentally ill patients out of institutions has not worked out the way supporters of deinstitutionalization wanted. But is the remedy a return to the asylum? Some neoconservatives think so.

In the history of American mental hospitals and prisons, the 1960s appeared to represent an important departure. The reformers of the sixties, unlike their predecessors, were determined not so much to improve institutions as to devise alternatives. Just as asylums and prisons had grown up together in the 1830s and undergone parallel changes in the early 1900s, so it seemed they would both now lose their centrality as institutions of care and correction, to be replaced by community-based programs. The promise appeared so great and the goal so attainable that I thought it altogether appropriate in 1972 to publish an article titled "On Prisons, Asylums, and other Decaying Institutions." Two decades later this formulation turns out to have been only partially correct. The mental hospital has decayed, in some places quite literally. Walking around the grounds of the state hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts is like visiting a ghost town: the once imposing red brick buildings stand empty...