Pennhurst in 2013, about 26 years after it was finally shut down. (Flickr Creative Commons/Fred Dunn)

Opened in 1908, the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic, colloquially known as “Pennhurst,” was supposed to be a model.

At the time, many social scientists felt people with intellectual disabilities should be removed from society and segregated into state institutions.

“It is nothing less than a concerted movement to attempt to control the breeding of feeble-minded and defective individuals within the State of Pennsylvania,” The Inquirer noted in a 1916 story referencing the institution.

Located in Chester County, Pennhurst was built to house 500 people with physical and mental disabilities.

From the start, it was overcrowded. By 1957, Pennhurst had 3,500 residents, according to The Inquirer.

Aerial view of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital campus, 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)

And overcrowding was just one of the problems that would soon come to light.

A 1968 documentary by Channel 10 reporter Bill Baldini took viewers inside the walls of the now-60-year-old institution.

The scenes, which included caged children, were chilling.

A later Inquirer piece described what the camera found: “Images of half-clothed children and young adults wandering aimlessly in overcrowded day rooms were accompanied by a cacophony of sounds, assaulting the senses at each turn.”

Baldini found people withering from neglect, trapped in an institution that spent less per day feeding them than zoos spent to feed animals.

“These unfortunates are being deprived of their dignity and self-respect,” he said. “Why? Because only a very, very few seem to care.”

YouTube video

Pennhurst was hit with a wave of lawsuits in the 1970s.

They included a 1974 case filed on behalf of patient Terri Lee Halderman, a young woman who suffered various unexplained injuries during her decade at the institution.

Halderman’s case resulted in a landmark 1977 District Court ruling, which concluded that Pennhurst violated the constitutional rights of its patients.

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision, the first of three times it considered the case.

One of those Supreme Court decisions yielded a doctrine on states’ rights known as “The Pennhurst Doctrine.” (It received some press in recent years because of its applicability to an Obamacare lawsuit.)

Under the weight of legal challenges, Pennhurst lost patients. Eventually, Halderman’s case resulted in a settlement that triggered the institution’s closure.

More broadly, the Pennhurst saga helped mark a turning point in the care of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The status quo moved away from segregated institutions and toward community-care settings.

Pennhurst itself sat vacant for decades until it was (controversially) revived.

Today, it is the site of a haunted house.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on July 13, 2023.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...