Tales of Virginia – Institutional Sanctuary

A sanctuary is intended to describe a safe or inviolable place of refuge, an asylum from persecution. While meant to designate religious shelter, the term has come to denote any particular location of safekeeping for individuals seeking asylum. The term institutional sanctuary describes an establishment solely intended for the care of individuals with physical or mental impairments in need of organized supervision. Though the religious may seek spiritual asylum from time to time, it is not typically a necessity. By contrast, individuals suffering from mental health disorders inarguably require sanctuary or asylum out of unsought necessity. However, institutional sanctuary does not always provide the spirited safekeeping promised or legally assured. A shelter can become a place of inescapable horrors, as is the case with Central State Hospital.

In years prior to systematized asylum, mental illness was believed to be caused by moral weakening or even possession by demonic forces. Shameful penance or misguided intervention was generally passed down to the mentally ill, resulting in maltreatment or fatality. According to the US Library of Medicine, in order to deal with the mentally disturbed, the Virginia legislature provided funds to build such institutional sanctuaries.

In 1870, the former Howard’s Grove hospital was established into Central Lunatic Asylum, the first facility designated for “colored persons of unsound mind.” From the opening of the hospital until 1915, the supposed causes of psychosis in those admitted included abortion, epilepsy, marriage, masturbation, and typhoid fever. The hospital remained exclusive to African-Americans until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

Starting in 1967, the hospital began to serve a wide demographic of individuals – the population and wards grew in size considerably, becoming overwhelmed.
Over time, Central State began to be widely speculated as more of a prison than a haven for the mentally ill. Reports alleged violent treatment methods, overcrowding, forced restraint, physical cruelty, and forced involuntary sterilization. In 1980, a class-action lawsuit was filed by some of the mentally ill patients requiring Virginia to provide optional reversal procedure to every patient “sterilized” between 1924 and 1973.

“There are some patients at Central State who are extremely dangerous and who are not allowed to leave their buildings. Haiyang Zhu, the 25-year-old doctoral student from Virginia Tech that decapitated a young woman, was admitted to Central State. And in 2000, when they were making the movie Hannibal, they took some of the scenery from the property and used it as a backdrop for the Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore,” said Pete Lehman, Head of Security for Central State Hospital.

According to Central State’s monthly reports, one patient was secluded and restrained for 1,727 hours over an eight-month period. The reports indicated allegations of abuse, increased patient deaths, and lack of supervision. For several months in 1997, a lengthy investigation was conducted by expert consultants in psychiatry. During the course of the detailed investigation, the experts concluded that patients were in extreme harm and were in violation of their basic rights. They also concluded that the facility was unable to provide adequate diagnoses, staffing, supervision and overall treatment to those in need.

Today, the original wards are largely desolate and abandoned. Wild vines and roots have grown into broken foundations of the buildings – symbolic of its now unrestrained nature. In 2010, the Central State Hospital Chapel was registered on the National Register of Historic Places as a symbol of Virginia’s unequal treatment of African-Americans.




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