From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945 – PARSONS (THT)

PARSONS, Anne E.. From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 240p. Resenha de: HALL JR., Clarence Jefferson. The History Teacher, v.52, n.3, p.532-533, may., 2019.

In From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration after 1945, Anne Parsons shows how a renewed commitment to human rights and individual liberty after the horrors of World War II helped spur a movement against the long-term confinement of individuals diagnosed with mental illness. Using the state of Pennsylvania as a case study, Parsons highlights how pressure from mental hospital residents and employees, investigative journalists, civil rights attorneys, and progressive advocacy groups yielded significant improvements in the treatment, care, and living conditions of people with mental illnesses both inside institutions and in new, community-based settings. Inadequate funding and political support for these initiatives, however, quickly imperiled the newly won freedoms of many formerly institutionalized men and women. Sadly, as Parsons demonstrates, the convergence of increasing national crime rates, the violence and uprisings of the Civil Rights Era, and the growing public visibility of individuals diagnosed with mental illness fueled a bipartisan politics of fear. With involuntary hospitalization no longer a readily available option, many men and women exhibiting behaviors associated with mental illness—regardless of diagnosis—often found themselves arrested, jailed, and imprisoned in order to calm the anxieties of white, middleclass voters. In this way, Parsons argues, the post-war deinstitutionalization of mental health care aided in driving the late twentieth-century growth of mass incarceration, both in Pennsylvania and across the United States.

From Asylum to Prison joins a rich and growing literature on the history of the American carceral state. By centering the post-World War II expansion of the U.S. prison system squarely within the history of deinstitutionalization, Parsons reminds readers that mass incarceration, far from being a distinct historical phenomenon, has deep historical roots outside the halls of the criminal legal system. In this case, efforts to improve the care and treatment of those with mental illnesses in non-institutional settings ultimately drove many former patients back into institutional settings (and in some cases, as Parsons shows, into prisons that had once served as mental hospitals). At the same time, however, as Parsons is contending with an ongoing social and political problem in the U.S., From Asylum to Prison demonstrates—if policy makers and elected officials care to pay attention—the potentially life-changing value of historical research for the present and future. As Parsons writes, “History can be a great healer. I write about the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals and the rise of prisons in order to learn from these cycles of confinement and to work to create a more inclusive and equitable society” (p. 19). Accordingly, each chapter is replete with lessons on the countless dangers of viewing involuntary, long-term confinement in institutional settings as a remedy for the nation’s social ills. Thus, Parsons has made an important historiographical contribution that simultaneously serves as a valuable cautionary tale for public officials now and into the future.

The clear, linear narrative of From Asylum to Prison makes it an ideal text for teaching the history of deinstitutionalization and mass incarceration in the seven decades since World War II. Though Parsons focuses her study on communities and institutions across Pennsylvania, she does so without sacrificing the context that is crucial to understanding how the experiences of one state can be representative of the entire nation. Further, Parsons’ research—combining a thorough assemblage of government documents, popular literature and film, academic research studies, journalistic accounts, patient correspondence, and advocacy organizations’ records—reinforces the value of rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship. Finally, Parsons underscores the importance of understanding past choices and developments for making improvements to a criminal legal system that, at least in the case of From Asylum to Prison, remains in bad need of improvement. For these reasons, Parsons’s book would be appropriate for use with students. However, as the book does at times assume some pre-existing knowledge of broad historical context, From Asylum to Prison would best be used in either upper-division undergraduate history courses or in graduate-level seminars. Nevertheless, teachers of undergraduate survey courses in U.S. history, and possibly even Advanced Placement high school history teachers, may find particular portions of the book useful for constructing their own lessons on the tangled politics of mental health care and imprisonment in post-war America.

Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. – Queensborough Community College / CUNY.

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