ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene announced Wednesday at a Legislative Black Caucus hearing that it will assign a work group to investigate decades of abuse endured by African American patients at the Crownsville State Hospital.
Gov. Martin O’Malley requested the investigation, issuing a letter that stated his decision to create a workgroup headed by an academic researcher.
Citizens and civil rights activists spoke at Wednesday’s hearing of a long history of mistreatment of Crownsville patients due to overcrowding, underfunding, and inadequate staffing. The hospital, which was founded in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane and run by the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, closed in 2004.
Paul Lurz, a former social worker who worked at the hospital for 40 years, said complaints about poor funding were made consistently over the years by the institution’s superintendents.
Maryland’s psychiatric hospitals were segregated until the 1960s and according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, housing conditions were worse for African American patients.
A cemetery next to the Crownsville hospital houses more than 1,500 bodies of dead patients, whose bodies went unclaimed by their families.
“It was standard operational procedure to give patients a number in place of a name,” said local historian, Janice Hayes-Williams, who has spent seven years going through death certificates to identify patient remains.
Hayes-Williams said she would like to see a monument erected with the names of the patients buried at the site.
“Anne Arundel County has been maintaining the grounds but nobody has ever maintained the gravestones,” Hayes-Williams said. “The gravestones need to be restored to their previous dignity.”
Del. Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George’s and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she will be sending a letter to O’Malley asking that an independent entity oversees the work group in order to ensure adequate oversight.
“I really want the public to know what happened and for us to use this as a teaching model. You can’t change the past but you can learn from it,” said Del. Barbara Robinson, D-Baltimore.
According to O’Malley’s letter to a coalition of advocacy organizations, the workgroup is to consist of a representative from the State Archives, two representatives from the General Assembly, two from the coalition, a former patient (or family member) at the hospital, a former hospital employee, and two representatives from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.