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(2008)

Plot Summary

  • Pennhurst is a documentary film chronicling the stories of many people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined with the history of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, located outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Once a massive institutional home for the developmentally disabled, Pennhurst exemplified the divisive method of institutionalized care that rose to popularity early in the 20th Century as a result of the Eugenics Movement. Though the facility closed in 1987, its haunting past is a reminder of a place and time that gave birth to a civil rights movement all its own. The Eastern Pennsylvania State School for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic was established in 1908 in order to segregate those deemed "mentally defective" and "feeble minded" from society. The facility, originally built for a resident population of 1,300, was later renamed "Pennhurst State School and Hospital." The grounds included 17 buildings, among them a farm, stables, a piggery, all interconnected by a labyrinth of underground tunnels, allowing Pennhurst to function completely self-sufficiently. During the course of its first fifty years, Pennhurst's record was marked by a number of scandals involving mistreatment of patients, violence, drug abuse, embezzlement, and neglect by staff. After requests for an investigation into inner workings of the institution by the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) in 1968, a young reporter named Bill Baldini brought cameras into Pennhurst for the televised investigative report "Suffer The Little Children." The five-part report was the first time that the conditions inside Pennhurst had ever been exposed to the public. What the world saw in Baldini's report was a cramped, filthy, prison where the mentally handicapped were left to rot, in many cases strapped to their beds, with no hope of rehabilitation. Those higher-functioning individuals who had the misfortune of being grouped with the severely disabled had seen their condition decline, lessening their chances of successfully re-entering society. In 1974, a class action lawsuit was filed, one which was to become a landmark case in the civil rights movement for people with mental retardation. On December 23rd, 1977, a groundbreaking decision was announced, stating that for the first time people with mental retardation have a right to live in the community. This decision led to a mass exodus of residents, many of who were moved into local community living arrangements with support staff. It became the catalyst for the nation-wide deinstitutionalization movement. Over the last few decades Pennhurst has been at the center of much of the legislation that has arisen to guarantee rights and respect for those members of our society whose needs demand our attention and caring. As you will see, many individuals associated with Pennhurst have become leaders on the national front to proliferate understanding, acceptance, and tolerance for all disabled people of our nation. Their efforts culminated in 1990 with the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, although the struggle for them and their loved ones is far from over. After Pennhurst officially closed its doors in 1987, the fallout for its former residents and employees was mixed. Some patients were able to make the successful transition to life back in the community; others met with great difficulty on the road to independence, and still others found no viable alternative to institutionalized living. In many cases these individuals had been dumped, literally left at the doorstep of Pennhurst, with no family or home to return to. Despite its evils, Pennhurst was all that many of them had. Today, the former residents of Pennhurst, their families, and the former employees of the institution have moved on from the place that connects their pasts, but the polarizing legacy of that site that once linked them lingers in all of their lives. To some, Pennhurst was a loving home, a refuge from a life of extreme hardship and ostracization. To others it was a house of horrors, a place where society conveniently hid away its 'undesirables' and turned a blind eye to the cruelties and injustices that ensued. Accusations of abuse and neglect were once common on the grounds of the institution, and by reopening the gates of this secretive, secluded world the film sheds light on wrongs committed against those who were unable to tell their story on their own. This film delves beneath the surface of the now defunct Pennhurst State School and Hospital to investigate the personal tales of the people whose memories of Pennhurst range from the nostalgic to the nightmarish. It is a journey into the lives of a group of people who were long without a voice, but whose story is finally being told.

    - Written by Anonymous

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