If you are a superfan of the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black”, you’ll know that the outdoor scenes of the fictitious “Litchfield Correctional Facility” are filmed on the grounds of the Rockland State Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, NY, a town 20 miles outside of New York City. It is the perfect spot to film the show—with institutional architecture and bars to the outside already in place. The somber buildings are surrounded by green grass and trees, as were many of the New York mental health institutions opened in the early 20th century.
Built in 1927 and opened in 1928 the then named “Rockland State Hospital” was one answer to overcrowding in the other surrounding institutions for the mentally ill, including Ward’s Island where a fire in 1923 burned part of that facility to the ground. Rockland State Hospital was built in the “cottage plan” style; however, these stone buildings do not resemble fairy tale type cottages. The cottage plan consisted of a series of two-story buildings, connected by tunnels and walkways. Instead of higher floors, the cottage plan seemed friendlier and more therapeutic. The lower floor plan also kept the patients from thinking about jumping from high levels. There were cottages for men, for women, for children, plus a separate building for alcoholic treatment. In its heyday, the building housed over 6,000 patients on a campus 600 acres wide. Like other facilities of its time, they grew much of their own food and manufactured many of their supplies on site. Many of the staff, particularly the nurses, were housed in an employee cottage at the hospital.
Before the invention of psychotropic medicines, mental illness was a mystery. Researchers were ever trying for a cure, a fix all for the myriad of baffling symptoms. Although it really wasn’t to anyone’s benefit to keep the patients there except for hope of a cure, there was nowhere else to go. In many cases, there were no viable alternatives. Families were not supposed to keep a mentally ill family member at home—“crazy” people were supposed to be institutionalized for their own good. With each new war, soldiers came home, shell-shocked and emotionally torn—and the VA was not able to help many of them, so a good portion of them were sent to Rockland. Suicidal housewives who could no longer remember how to cook and were contemplating ending their lives via their gas stoves were dragged from their kitchens into a waiting ambulance and taken off to Rockland. Criminals who acted “crazy” whether they were or not, got a bed there too. The misunderstood, the misbehaved, and the hopelessly confused all live together in crowded wards. Those who visited family and friends at Rockland State Hospital drove through the imposing iron gates engraved with capital “R”. They reconnected with their loved ones amid the muttering and shrieks of the other patients occupying the common areas.
Treatments such as partial lobotomies, insulin shock, and electronic shock therapies were tried all over the world in hopes to find the one cure or a combination of cures that worked. Patients were put in isolation rooms, straight jackets, and freezing cold ice tubs in order to cure them or at least modify their behavior. These treatment plans were not peculiar to Rockland—these were the new advances in the medical care of the times.
Beyond the obvious failure of these treatments, there was a question of finding enough trained medical practitioners who would work in facilities such as Rockland State Hospital. The doctor/patient ratio was abysmal, with one newly minted psychiatrist often trying to treat an entire ward. Young nursing students in training would get a glimpse of horrors they would never be able to forget. Budgets to run Rockland and other state-run facilities were stretched to the maximum. The New York Department of Health was trying to keep up with the ever-growing inpatient population, often running the locked wards on skeleton crews.
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was inspired to write his masterpiece “Howl” for his friend Carl Solomon, a patient at Rockland State Hospital in the fifties. Ginsberg knew all about institutions and mental illness. His own mother Naomi, died at another New York psychiatric hospital. He also mentions this other hospital, Pilgrim State, by name in his work, he writes about “Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls”. What is also so unique about “Howl” is that Allen Ginsberg mentions his writer friend, Carl Solomon, by name, which was unusual in an age where the mentally ill were still largely a depersonalized segment of society. In part III of “Howl” Allen Ginsberg begins each haunting line with “I’m with you in Rockland…” No matter what you think of this profanity-laced classic piece of literature or Ginsberg’s political ideas, his words tear at the soul of anyone who has been mentally ill or has a family member who suffers from a psychiatric disorder. This poem is particularly haunting to anyone who has lived at Rockland State Hospital for any period of time, and those who tried to treat them.
By the seventies, new hope dawned on the horizon. Drug companies were introducing new formulas to help calm patients if not cure them. Lithium was introduced to help bipolar patients lead a more normal life. The inpatient population dwindled so far that the New York Department of Health began closing off many of Rockland’s wards. Patients gained release, many to an uncertain future. By the early 1990’s, most of the buildings were closed, as seen in photos of the antiquated computer equipment left behind in many of the older administrative buildings
There are still people treated “in Rockland”; however the new Rockland Psychiatric Center with its modern therapeutic approaches bear little resemblance to the old hospital. In addition to psychotropic medications, patients are offered support through community outreach, outpatient follow-up, and vocational assistance. There are two cemetery sites that are carefully tended, although many of the graves are unmarked. The older graveyard, called Broad Acres, is where patients who died between 1928 and 1965 were buried. A newer cemetery, Blaisdell, is located at the intersection of Blaisdell Avenue and Orangeburg Road for those who died after 1965. The modern treatment now available at Rockland Psychiatric Center, gives dignity and meaning to the unpleasant experiments of the past that spurred on research to give promise to the present.
Of course, the ruins of the old buildings no longer in use still stand. Birds fly in and out of broken windows due to the building’s neglect and trespassers. Even before “Orange is the New Black” began filming on site, urban explorers with their video cameras have been donning hazmat suits (at least the smarter ones wear them) and go hunting among the ruins. All many of them get for their trouble are videos of peeling paint, rusty old furniture, and now and again a sad little piece of patient artwork left behind. These Urbex participants risk their health and safety by going there. Ironically, they still choose to go although they risk being arrested and “locked up” themselves for trespassing. So why do they do this? Some say the buildings are haunted with the souls of those who spent years and died at Rockland State Hospital. For many, it’s just curiosity to see the evidence of a time gone by. Or maybe they just want to reassure the former occupants of these abandoned buildings that they too are “with you in Rockland.”