Friday, May 16, 2008


Screw: A Guard's View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan (South End Press, 1981)

Frederick Wiseman's Titicutt Follies is the only film in American history banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security. A 1967 verite documentary chronicling the less than stellar conditions prevailing at a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane, a judge put the kibosh on it ostensibly on the grounds that it invaded the inmate's privacy.

As a Wiseman fan since seeing High School in high school, I rushed out to see TF when the ban finally expired in 1992. It was a great film, but the hospital didn't come across as the snake pit I'd expected from the press clippings. Perhaps I'm jaded. For the real horrorshow, you'll have to turn to Screw.
Ryan was a psychology student working with Bridgewater inmates who took the job in 1974 to check up on the abuse stories he was hearing. And neither he (nor I!) was disappointed. The picture he paints of Bridgewater is of a combined human warehouse and open sewer. His fellow "COs" were the flowers of Dorchester and South Boston manhood. They cheered the hospital's modern therapeutic methods ("...a lobotomy. That what should be done to all these maggots") and criticized its failings ("Counselors, hah! It's do-gooders that wreck this place"). So socially conscious were these guardians of the sick that some spent their off hours drilling with a chapter of the Minutemen. Patients were locked in cells without toilets or sinks. Doctors were virtually nonexistent; drugs were dispensed by nurses. Beatings were common, and not of the COs. Ryan himself got in trouble with his comrades for refusing to join in on a 10-1 affair. So much for camaraderie.
Needless to say, patients failed to thrive in this environment. One ripped open his cheeks. Another, mocked by the guards, plucked out one of his eyes. A few days later, he plucked out the other . And then he plucked out his glass eyes! Ryan admits that things got better when the old hospital closed and they moved to a new facility. But not that much. Ryan ended his correctional career after 18 months and one witnessed beating too many.
It's something to consider whenever someone rants about "getting off" via the insanity defense.

No comments: