Hidden only a few acres behind the trees that line the side of Route 197 in Laurel, Maryland, is the Forest Haven Asylum, an abandoned facility as obscure and forgotten as the tenants who once occupied it. Today, crumbling in decay and disrepair after years of neglect, the facility’s compound has an eerie stillness about it, as though something straight out of a horror movie. Though, perhaps that is appropriate, considering the asylum’s troubling legacy.
It was a slow post-Christmas weekend for my girlfriend and I. Looking for a break to conventional routine, we settled upon the decision to explore an abandoned place in Maryland. Forest Haven came as a default; most of the abandoned locations near central Maryland – Henryton Hospital, the ‘Hell House,’ Ellicott City’s silk mill – have been torn down in recent years. Too many teenagers falling through floorboards and too many illegal parties were enough to convince authorities to demolish these run-down parts of our historical heritage.
The Forest Haven Asylum complex, however, remains standing. For sure, the place doesn’t look like it did when it opened in 1925 as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded,” but its 20-some buildings are mostly still there. As we quickly came to find, though, the compound sits well-guarded; not only are the ruins located on government property, the same property that houses Fort Meade, they share an access road to a present-day juvenile detention center.
Driving up to the unexpected guard post that kept watch on the road, we brainstormed a justification for our visit. Our true intentions, to spend a day exploring ruins while capturing some interesting pictures with her new DSLR camera, were doubtfully good cause for being there. Yet after briefly speaking to the guard we were waved through. Perhaps our excuse sounded reasonable enough: “we’re journalists, documenting the more forgotten and troubling parts of our region’s past.” In our defense, that last part was definitely true.
When the Forest Haven Asylum first opened nearly 90 years ago, it was widely hailed as a forward-thinking institution, one designed around the progressive change in mental health treatment that was sweeping Europe and North America at the time.
Situated about 20 miles away from Washington D.C. on a 200-acre forested property, the asylum’s setting satisfied the period belief that the mentally ill – who often overwhelmed their families and languished at home – would do well if they lived and received treatment away from the stresses of urban life. Their daily routines consisted of milking cattle, tending to gardens, and other ‘relaxing’ tasks designed to rehabilitate. Of course, also aligned with period beliefs were the facility’s treatment rooms for operant conditioning, post-dosage observation, and electroshock therapy.
While the first reviews of Forest Haven were positive, their conclusions were drawn more heavily from the facility’s concept and physical amenities than the institution’s actual execution. It was not long after opening that administrators found the place quickly becoming overcrowded and understaffed. Constrained by under-funding for decades, the staff found itself unable to offer proper treatment or find beneficial opportunities for all of their residents. Many regressed while under the asylum’s care. To make matters worse, when the District began suffering from a mid-century financial crisis, the asylum’s education and recreation programs were ended.
Forest Haven’s campus is large, but the buildings are clustered close together. The streets feel narrow from the overgrowth of grass and trees. Dormitories and support facilities, including a Chapel, surround the central office building. We started our tour in the flanks of the campus, working our way through what seemed to be an administrative office into the dormitories.
As you enter these buildings, it’s immediately noticeable just how decrepit the asylum has become. The buildings of Forest Haven are quite literally falling in on themselves: ceiling tiles litter the floors, drywall and insulation cover almost every interior surface, and mounds of dirt pile up in the staircases. Dark hallways give way to pockets of light shining down from holes in the roof above, while second and third floors, their foundations having given way, are broken by steep drops to the level below.
We wondered why the buildings still stood when other local sites had been torn down because of similar conditions. Walking across some creaky floorboards felt like an accident waiting to happen. Is there worth in keeping these buildings up when they pose such a liability risk? Even off-limits, the grounds are well traveled. At any rate, the buildings remain.
Although the institution sits on government property, it has not been taken good care of. Despite the guard posts, the place is a well-known hangout for vandals and the homeless who sneak onto the grounds. Graffiti, while not rampant, marks the walls of most buildings, with the occasional tag recurring in spots all over. The interiors are musky and the air is thick with the smell of dust and smoke; to our surprise, we found a fire still smoldering in a pile of papers sitting in the middle of a hallway of one of the buildings.
The basements, meanwhile, are veritable swamps, with inches of accumulated rainwater sustaining an ecosystem of mold and small plants. Signs for fallout shelters adorn the walls, testaments to the institution’s height of operations during the tenser years of the Cold War. The silence and stillness about the place is real, broken only by the clatter of our shoes against the cement floors, loose doors creaking in their hinges, and the occasional gust of wind blowing through openings.
Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine these buildings were ever inhabited, much less overcrowded. Yet it need not be imagined; the evidence of people past can be seen almost everywhere: in the medical documents and written reports pouring out of filing cabinets and littering the floors, in the gurneys and wheelchairs sitting in corners, in the various patient possessions that were left behind.
More than anything else, it was in the documents that we found the most insight into the people who called Forest Haven their home. While the buildings still remain as evidence of the place, the stories told in the papers strewn about the floor stand as testament to the people who knew it.
Though the asylum was originally instituted for individuals with severe mental handicaps, by the 1960s even people with treatable or mild learning disabilities were categorized as “retards” and sent to live at Forest Haven. So too were individuals deemed “undesirable” by their families or conventional hospitals, such as the deaf, dyslexic, epileptic, and illiterate. The facility’s resources, already stretched beyond their limits, were directed toward capacity instead of rehabilitation. Programs aimed at returning residents to normal life became untenable.
Coupled with the myriad other problems that befell Forest Haven, this would inevitably lead to cases of chronic abuse that would plague its patients in the decades leading up to its closure. Suits against the District for the mistreatment patients suffered in Forest Glenn were first brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1972. They brought to light chronic mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the facility.
Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment and turning their findings over to the Justice Department. Visiting families spoke of residents being bound to urine-soaked mattresses in locked wards. One particularly egregious story was that of a woman named Bertha Brown, who suffered from a disease which caused her to eat anything in sight. Tied to a toilet and left unattended, she tried to eat her feces and choked to death.
Yet the real impetus toward reform came in 1976, with the death of 17 year old Joy Evans. Joy died from aspiration pneumonia, an infection of the lungs caused by food or saliva. Unattended, Joy choked on her own food, as patients were often fed lying or strapped down to their beds. Joy’s parents filed a Federal class-action lawsuit against Forest Haven, detailing the facility’s abuses:
The lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs to meet individual needs of residents; the unsafe, unsanitary, and unpleasant condition of the Forest Haven facilities; inadequate staffing, lack of training, and abuse of residents by staff; inadequate medical, dental, and mental health care and nutrition; inadequate record-keeping; lack of after-care and rehabilitation programs and vocational training for former residents; and inadequate funding.
On June 14th, 1978, signing what became known as the Pratt Decree, Judge Pratt of the United States District Court ordered the institution to close. By the late 1970s, as patents were gradually moved out of the facility, the population of Forest Haven had fallen to around 1,300.
Still, crimes against the mentally ill would continue.
In the facility’s administrative building, patient records sit out right near the open entrance. Reading them was a quick introduction to the medical diagnoses and evaluations that characterized every resident of the institution. At the time, we were unaware of the history of the place. From these papers, a voice was given to Forest Haven’s past.
Drug addiction, lack of education, and inability to find work came up often as items listed for the residents’ issues. Some had been listless in life before Forest Haven, unemployed and homeless. Others had faced trouble at home, usually coupled with trouble with the law. Yet in these papers were peoples’ stories, told through their brief medical histories and personal descriptions. These were people who, deemed as going nowhere, were sent to Forest Haven, where they found themselves with nowhere to go.
Not everything we stumbled upon was official paperwork. In both the administrative building and the dormitories, we came upon personal journals, notebooks, reading supplies and literature, and handwritten notes. Many of them appeared written by the residents themselves.
One note, written in neat cursive and covered in soot, stood out to me in particular. It was a list of goals, short-term and long-term: finish my GED, go to school. Stay drug free, give back to the community. The words seemed to speak for all of the voices we couldn’t hear, a humanizing and personal touch in a setting otherwise defined by decaying installations. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they succeeded. Or is their story, all their stories, lost, buried in a pile of loose writings in a crumbling corner of an abandoned hallway?
Themes of liberation and freedom ring out of the murals plastered on the dormitory walls. Images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. tatter with the failing paint. There didn’t seem much hope left in it anymore.
Because of the court order to close Forest Haven, no improvements or repairs would be made to the buildings for over a decade. Continuous use stressed the structures beyond their capabilities. The facility was crumbling, even as people continued to live inside it.
With patients being transferred out of the facility and into group homes, staffing and funding at Forest Haven saw even deeper cuts than before. The asylum sat as most of its Medicare and government subsidies evaporated. Qualified volunteers and staff members were few and far between.
Ten deaths occurred at the asylum between 1989 and 1990, a remarkable rate considering the institution had only 252 residents at the time. The rate of bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy accelerated to obscene levels in the final months of Forest Haven. By 1991, only ninety one patients remained in the facility, yet they fared far worse than those who came before them.
It wasn’t only documents that littered the interiors of Forest Haven’s facilities. We were surprised just how many items – books, computers, clipboards, machines, equipment – were left behind. Rooms still sit almost entirely furnished.
It was enough to make us start wondering what happened at Forest Haven, and why it was left as it was. While today these virtual artifacts are deteriorating from age and the elements, they must’ve amounted to a considerable sum of worth at the time the facility closed. Walking among the scenes they set in these forgotten buildings was lonely, apocalyptic. One of us observed that the place felt like something out of Fallout 4. It was an apt assessment.
In the dormitories, we came across what may have been the library. Piles of books are poured across the floor. Their bindings are slowly unwinding, sitting in inches of water and muck. I found myself moved by the tragic scene, one which a line of graffiti scribbled along the wall satirized properly. “Drop out of school. Read books.”
We continued our tour through the facility. The idyllic buildings had grown imposing on me; the longer we stayed, the stronger I felt that the place belonged in a horror movie. As the day progressed, the sun’s light sent shadows flying across different surfaces; light areas grew dim, doorways ended in rooms of darkness. The movement of trees’ limbs shaking in the corner of our eyes sent us casting jumpy glances, believing someone was there. As we entered the administrative building, we thought we heard a sneeze. Perhaps we weren’t alone.
A dentist’s office sits ready in the administrative building, complete with chairs and equipment. It was cramped, liked many of the hallway’s other offices, perhaps as a dentist’s office should be. We found further medical facilities down the hall; a medical ward of sorts.
I tried to imagine the sounds of bustle in the place, of doctors going through their files, sick patients coughing down the halls, medical supplies banging around in their containers. I tried, but the gentle whistle of the light wind squeezing through the collapsing ceiling drowned out the phantom bustle I sought to conjure. And then: another sneeze. Was it my mind playing tricks, twisting a dropping tile or a collapsing desk into what they were not, or did we have company? Footsteps. I glanced over at my girlfriend, who seemed far less perturbed, grabbed her arm, and quickly made down the building’s winding staircase and out the open frame that was once a loading dock. Leaving, we heard, from back in the building, slight murmurs. Who it was, we never found out.
Forest Haven’s final weeks were, to say the least, hectic. As residents were readied to move, the staff packed their belongings into small footlockers and tucked away their suitcases in empty corners of the facility. The last fifteen residents were moved out in late September 1991, 13 years after the order was given to close the institution. Finally, on October 14th, the Forest Haven asylum officially closed. It had served the District for 66 years.
Yet an official declaration of closure is merely a bureaucratic tool, some mid-level government worker placing a signature upon a promptly filed-away piece of paper. Though Forest Haven had closed in its capacity as an asylum, new uses were found for its premises. One of the buildings toward the far end of the grounds became a holding block of sorts for troubled female youths. As it turned out, a lack of communication between the agencies responsible for the site had left some officials unaware that the building was crumbling and packed with asbestos.
The remainder of the buildings sat. And sat. A March 2004 audit of the facility, nearly 12 years after its official closure, found gross mismanagement on the part of the District. None of the unused buildings had ever been secured. Many still had power and running water; documents were shuffled into different buildings instead of being destroyed. Even the medical equipment and computers, while stored, remained functional. Finally, in December 2011, 20 years after Forest Haven was shut down – 30 years after the order to close its doors was given – the District allocated the funds to properly handle and secure what remained at the property.
Much, but not all, of the equipment in Forest Haven – enough to fill a museum – was removed following the 2011 destruction order. Yet, as we experienced firsthand during our visit 5 years later, enough remains to tell the story of the place; documents litter the floor, chairs and gurneys sit unused, filing cabinets are spilled across rooms. The photographs in this post are testament enough to what remains. One need not search long or hard to get a sense of the Forest Haven’s purpose or its legacy’s meaning.
We left Forest Haven through its main access road as the sun began to set, walking past buildings casting dark shadows upon our path. We coming across a service vehicle – or, more aptly put, the service vehicle came upon us, its driver quickly booking it down the road to cut us off. He met us with a stern look and a series of interrogatives. We repeated our story to him and, though he seemed perturbed, he let us walk by and back to our car. Did he know about the troubling history of the facility he guarded? Was he paid enough to care?
Driving home from Forest Haven, I was enthused about the opportunity to write this blog post. How often does one explore a still-furnished yet long-abandoned facility? I had hoped this post would be a fun little travel log, a story of our wanderings if nothing else. I had already begun writing this post when I decided, on a whim, to search a little into the asylum’s backstory. Maybe – I reasoned – it would provide some good context for the reader. I’d devote a paragraph, maybe two, to that history and then be done with it. No need to bore my audience with insignificant tokens of the past.
In the end, our exploration of the facility turned out to be what was insignificant, a simple justification to devote discussion to the place’s history. And that history, far from being a token of the past, was, is, and will remain a troubling scar upon and a damning indictment of our mental health system and of our dealing with our historical heritage.
According to various sources, some 3,200 patients spent time at the institution while its doors were open. Considering the 387 deaths that occurred at Forest Haven, it had a residential death rate of twelve percent. Statistically, one in ten people who showed up at Forest Haven – often the disabled, the troubled, the rejects of society – wouldn’t expect to leave alive.
The Forest Haven Asylum: a hopeless home for abandoned people.
http://sometimes-interesting.com/2014/04/12/abandoned-home-for-the-abandoned-forest-haven-asylum/ – (all credit goes to this truly fantastic write-up, from which I drew most of my information)