Throwback Thursday: Wyatt v. Stickney

Wyatt Bryce HospitalAt the age of 15, Ricky Wyatt was committed by the juvenile court to Bryce State Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Carr, 2004). Describing himself as a teenager, Ricky said, “I was just a hell-raiser like a lot of young boys.” Never diagnosed with a mental illness, Ricky was committed to Bryce in hopes the hospital could modify his behavior. Ricky’s experiences and personal accounts of the deplorable conditions of the hospital result in the landmark Wyatt v. Stickney case, which was filed in the federal United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on October 23, 1970 (Stickney was the state’s mental health commissioner).

In 1970, Alabama cut its cigarette tax whose proceeds were once earmarked for mental health services. Due to this cut, Bryce (having 5,200 patients) eliminated nearly 100 staff positions, including psychologists, occupational therapists, and social workers (Disability Justice, 2015). This resulted in there being only one physician for every 350 patients and one psychiatrist for every 1,700 patients.

Former U.S. Attorney, Ira DeMent, who worked on the case described Bryce as a “dumping ground for socially undesirables, for severely mentally ill, profoundly mentally ill people, and for geriatrics” (Carr, 2004).

These tombstones are in one of the four burial sites near Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa. An estimated 5,000 people are buried at the four sites, and many of the graves are unmarked. (Birmingham News / Tamika Moore)
Tombstones found in one of four burial sites located near Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, AL. 5,000 people are estimated to be buried at these four sites, with any graves left unmarked. (Birmingham News / Tamika Moore)

On March 12, 1971, Federal District Court judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. ruled that the state of Alabama failed to provide several thousand patients with adequate medical treatment, which was a violation of their civil liberty and due process. The ruling ordered the state to develop and produce minimum medical and constitutional standards of operations (Beyerle, 2011).

Judge Johnson proclaimed, “To deprive any citizens of his or her liberty upon the altruistic theory that the confinement is for humane therapeutic reasons and then fail to provide adequate treatment violates the very fundamentals of due process” (Wyatt v. Stickney, 1971).

Wyatt v. Stickney continued to play out in the courts for 33 years, ending in 2003 with U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson approving the settlement of the original class action and dismissing the lawsuit (Disability Justice, 2015). Judge Thompson reminded Alabama that the case does not end, rather  its principles (now codified in statutes and regulations) of humane treatment for people with mental illness and mental retardation remain, ever present and hovering over the State” (Wyatt v. Stickney, 2003).

Wyatt v. Stickney is the longest running mental health lawsuit in U. S. history, and its litigation costs are estimated to exceed $15 million (Disability Justice, 2015). Yet, Wyatt v. Stickney will always be remembered for facilitating reforms across the country’s metal health systems by declaring humane treatment, care, and rehabilitation as a fundamental right for people with mental and developmental disabilities.

References

Beyerle, D. (2011).Tuscaloosa man whose case changed mental health care in U.S. has died. Tuscaloosa News.com. Retrieved from: http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/article/20111103/NEWS/111109961?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar

Carr, L. W. (2004).Wyatt v. Stickney: A Landmark Decision. Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program Newsletter. Retrieved from: http://www.adap.net/Wyatt/landmark.pdf

“Ricky Wyatt.” (2009). Listen. Retrieved from: http://www.mh.alabama.gov/BryceHospitalProject/History/RickyWyatt.pdf

Wyatt v. Stickney. (2015). Disability Justice: Reform and Closing of Institutions. Retrieved from: http://disabilityjustice.tpt.org/wyatt-v-stickney/

Wyatt v. Stickney, 325 F. Supp. 781, 783 (M.D. Ala. 1971). Retrieved from: http://www.clearinghouse.net/chDocs/public/MH-AL-0001-0009.pdf

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