1961 March 28

Senate Committee Examines Rights of the Mentally Ill

 

The Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights on this day heard testimony that many people committed to mental institutions because of mental health problems were denied basic civil rights. The superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., testified that the existing law in the nation’s capital was “cumbersome, unduly legalistic,” and distressing to patients, with the result that needed medical treatment was often delayed.

The hearings were an early event in what in the 1960s became a national movement for the rights of the mentally ill and mentally retarded who were confined in institutions. The subcommittee was chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who became famous in the 1970s for investigating spying on American citizens by the military (see February 24, 1971), and later the abuses of power by President Richard Nixon in the Watergate Scandal.

On June 26, 1975, in O’Connor v. Donaldson, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not detain mentally ill persons who were not a danger to the community. The plaintiff in that case was Kenneth Donaldson who had been held for 15 years in a Florida institution for the mentally ill, in a ward for the dangerously mentally ill that had only one doctor for every 1,000 inmates/patients. (see his story, below). And on June 20, 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded persons.

Learn about the rights of the mentally ill: http://www.webmd.com/schizophrenia/guide/rights-mental-illness

Learn more about the rights of the mentally ill in prisonhttps://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/mental-health-care-prison

Read Kenneth Donaldson’s story:  Kenneth Donaldson, Insanity Inside Out (1976)

Read the ACLU report on mental illness in U.S. prisons and jailshttp://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file299_41188.pdf

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