Geri Joseph

Local journalist exposed deplorable conditions in state institutions in ’48

Note: Each month of 2007, Access Press will feature an important person in disability history: local, regional or national

Sixty years ago, Minnesota journalist Geri Joseph played an important role in advancing the rights of people with disabilities in the state. In 1948, she authored an extensive newspaper exposé in the Minneapolis Morning Journal detailed the living conditions in Minnesota’s 15 state mental institutions and brought the issue to public attention. Joseph, know then as Geri Hof-fner, published a 10-part report on the deplorable conditions in the state’s mental institutions. Remarkably, the report, which was critical of the current system at the time, was created with Governor Luther Youngdahl’s full support and approval.

“It was the kind of scene that really haunts you for long after you have been through them,” said Joseph in a later interview. “We very methodically went through all of the institutions at that time. I don’t remember, there were seven or eight.

“Those hospitals were in very, very bad shape. You would not have called them hospitals. People have described them as warehouses. That’s really what they were. You just sort of stockpile people in there. There was very little treatment of any kind. If you got a physical exam once a year, that was a miracle.

“What you would see in these hospitals by and large would be men and women either just standing around doing nothing or you would see those who were catatonic sitting in corners, on the floor, sitting like this, all bunched over, not moving, not speaking, In one of the hospitals there were just an incredible number of people who were literally tied up. They’d have leather cuffs. Or they have almost like a baseball catcher with the leather things in the front and the hands hooked to it, or some of them would be tied to beds, spread-eagle tied to beds. They had no sheets or pillowcases on these beds. And the ticking, you know, the mattress ticking, in many places was very dirty. Well, it is very hard to describe it adequately.”

Excerpted with permission from: “With An Eye To The Past: The History of Deinsti-tutionalization in Minnesota,” at www.mncdd.org, the Web site of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.