the pennhurst project

 
 

The Pennhurst Project is a site dedicated to the stories and memories of the people who lived and worked at Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pennsylvania. The goal of the project is to record and archive the first-person narratives of the staff, administrators and residents in order to dispel some of the rumors, falsehoods and urban legends that still surround the institution.


First opened in 1908 as the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, Pennhurst quickly gained a reputation as a facility fraught with problems. Allegations of abuse, neglect and overcrowding were compounded by a lack of state funds and inadequate staffing to care for the thousands of residents, many with profound and severe disabilities, who called Pennhurst their home.


In 1968, WCAU 10 news reporter Bill Baldini documented the crowded conditions at Pennhurst in a five-night exposé that shocked and angered the public. Baldini blamed society’s indifference, not the staff and administrators, for allowing such conditions to persist and urged viewers to take the initiative by contacting their state legislators to demand change. Their grassroots efforts worked. The state allocated $21 million for the deteriorating facility, resulting in the construction of the New Horizons building (now home to the SE PA Veterans Administration). The rest of the money was redirected to pay for community programs.


By the early 70s, changes were taking place not only in the care and treatment of the residents but in the public consciousness as well. When a class-action lawsuit brought against Pennhurst and the State of Pennsylvania in 1974 thrust the institution into the national spotlight, it sparked a movement to end the forced institutionalization of those with developmental disabilities. Rocked by years of bad publicity, Pennhurst closed its doors in 1987.


Did Pennhurst deserve the negative reputation it received in the media and in the collective mind of the public? As you read and listen to the stories on this site you will see different sides of this controversial institution. You will hear about workers who loved and cared for their charges, who did everything in their power to give them a glimpse of a “normal life” by bringing them into their homes and making them part of the family.


You will also hear from the residents themselves. They will tell you stories about being put on “punishment wards” where they were locked down and forced to work at the most menial of jobs. Others have nothing but fond memories of Pennhurst and miss the camaraderie of institutional life.


After you have listened to the stories you can decide for yourself whether Pennhurst deserved its fate. We welcome your comments and questions. Contact us at: info@pennhurstproject.com.

welcome to the pennhurst project

Do you have a story about Pennhurst that you’d like to share on this site? Send us an email at: info@pennhurstproject.com.

The lower campus of the Pennhurst complex is now privately owned.  Photos and video on this site were taken with the kind permission of Jim Barnes of Penn Organic.

PLEASE DO NOT TRESPASS!

 
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