From Asylum to Prison: Deinstitutionalization and the Rise of Mass Incarceration After 1945 (Justice, Power, and Politics)

Regular price $ 29.95

by Anne E. Parsons

University of North Carolina Press

10/8/2018, hardcover

SKU: 9781469640631


To many, asylums are a relic of a bygone era. State governments took steps between 1950 and 1990 to minimize the involuntary confinement of people in psychiatric hospitals, and many mental health facilities closed down. Yet, as Anne Parsons reveals, the asylum did not die during deinstitutionalization. Instead, it returned in the modern prison industrial complex as the government shifted to a more punitive, institutional approach to social deviance. Focusing on Pennsylvania, the state that ran one of the largest mental health systems in the country, Parsons tracks how the lack of community-based services, a fear-based politics around mental illness, and the economics of institutions meant that closing mental hospitals fed a cycle of incarceration that became an epidemic.

This groundbreaking book recasts the political narrative of the late twentieth century, as Parsons charts how the politics of mass incarceration shaped the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals and mental health policy making. In doing so, she offers critical insight into how the prison took the place of the asylum in crucial ways, shaping the rise of the prison industrial complex.


"In this compelling history of the transformation of psychiatric care in the United States, Parsons reveals the link between social-welfare contraction and the rise of mass incarceration in the second half of the twentieth century and sheds new light on the relationship between the 'rights revolution' and the triumph of neoliberalism."--Marisa Chappell, Oregon State University

"Important and timely, Parsons's analysis of postwar deinstitutionalization complicates and deepens the existing narratives about its causes, timing, and consequences."--Nancy Tomes, Stony Brook University

"Through a meticulous analysis, rich in archival research, Anne Parsons brilliantly illuminates the historical transformations in custodial confinement from the asylum to the prison over the period 1945 to 1985. Parsons unmasks the myths surrounding deinstitutionalization and reveals instead how prisons and correctional facilities filled the emptying spaces of mental hospitalization--providing the infrastructure for the carceral state of the late twentieth century. Anyone working on decarceration must read her haunting historical account."--Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia University 

"Anne Parsons brilliantly unpacks a vital social justice issue of the past half century: how prisons became de facto sites of treatment for persons with severe psychiatric disabilities in the United States. As she shows, the over-incarceration of people with psychiatric disabilities stemmed in large part from the rapid growth of the U.S. penal system, leading to what she brilliantly calls a 'crisis of confinement.' Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Parsons takes readers on a quest that traverses time and place. Along the way, this book pushes readers to rethink many longstanding assumptions about the ways we as a society treat the most needy among us. It is required reading, indeed."--Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD, author of Dying of Whiteness 

"Parsons has written an excellent book about hopes, frustrations, and failures of deinstitutionalization and decarceration--one that will be of interest to historians, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, policy makers, and students of disability studies".-- Journal of the History of Medicine


Anne E. Parsons is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she serves as the director of Public History.