The Three Christs of Ypsilanti

Photos date from 2004 to 2006 and are scanned from 35mm prints.

About 40 miles to the west of Detroit in Washtenaw County once lay the sprawling ruins of a decayed insane asylum that the State of Michigan built. Originally called Ypsilanti State Hospital, it opened in 1931 after attention was called to the serious lack of bed space in Michigan's then-overflowing mental hospitals, especially at Eloise Asylum. Ypsilanti State Hospital was the site of a couple famous experiments during its time, as you will soon read.


"Ypsi" consisted of two long buildings ("B" and "C") that were back-to-back and contained the patient wards. There was also the smaller "A-Building" that housed the hospital's administrative offices, receiving hospital, and morgue. My colleague Chisel was able to explore it before it was knocked down in 2001, but I never got to see anything of it other than the blank patch of grass where it used to reside, and the caved-in tunnel leading up to it.

I made my first recon mission of Ypsilanti State Hospital in early 2004 when the "C-Building" was still in use and state vehicles were parked all over the place. Surveillance cameras bristled all over it, swiveling here and there, and all kinds of signs warned that we basically did not belong there. The place sat right out in the open, in the middle of a field surrounded by roads with naught but a couple trees for cover. We wanted to explore the "B-Building," which sat empty and half-destroyed by vandals—it was wide open and looked just about as inviting as could be—if not for the fact that an in-use state facility for the criminally insane was operating a couple feet behind it. And as if that weren’t enough, Huron Valley Correctional Facility operated about a block north of it.


The long, long trek across those open fields approaching the abandoned B-Building looked like a suicide mission. We were used to having to cope with the hyper-vigilant security forces that guarded the vacant Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital at the time, where if you even looked cross-eyed at the place they'd swarm your ass. We were extremely cautious of Northville, even though we had the luxury of thick forest-cover all around. This wide-open business seemed perfectly set up to bust idiots trying to do exactly what we were planning.


In late August of 2004, I finally made my first trip into the old abandoned B-Building. The approach to the main entrance was quite impressive. This austere brick monster consumed the horizon as one walked toward it from the wiry, burr-infested fields, looming larger and larger until you could smell and feel its cold, stale breath exhaling with a low moan from its toothy maw through shattered windows. 


The main entrance itself was marked by an imposing portico of several 20-foot-tall stone columns, topped by a Greek-style tympanum and a large "Great Seal" of the State of Michigan. Sadly, there was nothing in the way of a fancy front lobby worth photographing.


At that time the Michigan state flag was still waving proudly over the C-Building, and its surveillance cameras still monitored the grounds and yards. Sixteen-foot razorwire fences surrounded the maximum-security unit where the ultra-loonies were kept, but where we were in the falling-apart "old side" of the complex, the windows were all smashed out, bricks crumbled, rusty doors flapped in the wind and slammed loudly against the surrounding silence.


Even though it was actually closer to Saline or Ann Arbor than the city of Ypsilanti (pronounced, "ips-uh-lan-tee"), the facility was nonetheless named after home of Eastern Michigan University. The substantial brick edifice was set up somewhat like a Kirkbride-style asylum in that it had two long wings extending from a central administrative area, but lacked most of the Kirkbride architectural flair. Instead, "Ypsi" was given a stern, spartan appearance reflecting the hard times of the Great Depression and the restrained hand of its architect, Detroit's own Albert Kahn.

According to asylumprojects.org, as of 1931 the asylum consisted of: the A-Building, the first two wards of the B- and C-Buildings with room for approximately 900 patients, the J- and K-Buildings containing dormitory and apartment space for employees, the powerhouse, the warehouse, and the superintendent's residence. All the patient buildings were connected by tunnels (or above-ground enclosed walkways). The total per-patient per-diem maintenance cost, which is sort of the "magic number" for a custodial institution's financials, was .80 cents at that time, which was pretty good.


In late 1936 the state and federal governments both began participating in plans for further expanding Ypsilanti State's facilities. Wards C-3, C-4, C-5 and C-6 were added in 1937, and by 1938 the Occupational Therapy Center and wards B-3& B-4 were finished.

During the Great Depression they were besieged by the unemployed, and had thousands of applications on hand from people looking for work. In the WWII years it was the opposite case; the draft took a huge toll on the ranks of the hospital employees, which resulted in a lot of *unqualified individuals* being hired. Conscientious objectors to the war were also assigned to institutions such as Ypsi since they refused to fight on moral grounds.


After the end of the war, expansion naturally continued. Wards B-5 and B-6 were completed in 1948 and in 1954 the A-Building was remodeled and a third story added for additional administrative office space. Asylumprojects.org says that Ypsi was the first state hospital in Michigan to have a chapel separate from other buildings. Although I don't quite remember seeing a "separate" chapel, we did find a fancy altar and pews that went to it set up in a room next to the cafeteria. There was even a nine-hole mini golf course by the time I was there, out behind the C-Building, but I can't find my photo of it.

The newspaper of the nearby University of Michigan published a pretty good article on Ypsilanti State Hospital in September of 2005 when its demolition was imminent. According to that,Ypsi also saw the proliferation of new research projects after WWII, "ranging from mundane epidemiological studies, to 'finger-painting as a diagnostic and therapeutic aid,' to work involving a substance referred to as 'L.S.D. CID #527.'"


A February, 2011 Associated Press news report documented the many U.S. government-funded medical studies that have been carried out in our country's past where the inmates of our prisons and mental hospitals were used as guinea pigs, often intentionally making them ill without their knowledge, in order to test different theories. You may not find this all that troubling, since they are just prisoners after all, but it has been said that the true measure of a nation is in how it treats the least of its citizens. Not to mention inhumane experimenation was one of the Nazis' favorite things to do to people that it had imprisoned.

Ypsilanti State Hospital was no exception to these experiments, but at least it was one of the ones that had a positive outcome. In 1942, "senile and debilitated" male patients were injected with an experimental flu vaccine, and then several months later they were exposed to the influenza virus to see if the vaccine had worked. This may sound benevolent due to the fact that it was "for a good cause," but it took advantage of the fact that these men were mostly unaware of the potentially "cruel and unusual" experiment they were being subjected to, and had no legal means to contest their participation--their rights had been violated.


The study was co-authored by Dr. Jonas Salk, who would later become famous for developing the polio vaccine as a result of this work. According to another article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Salk came to the University of Michigan from New York to continue his research on developing an influenza vaccine, which had suddenly become a priority for the U.S. Army during WWII, since 30,000 American soldiers died of Spanish flu in WWI. Dr. Salk came up with a vaccine prototype less than a year after arriving in Michigan.

Salk's first trials were successful; he and his colleagues inoculated 8,000 inmates of Ypsilanti State Hospital, and Eloise Asylum. No flu outbreak occurred at either institution that winter, so Salk and his colleagues then exposed hundreds of the patients to the virus deliberately. "Luckily," the article states, Dr. Salk's vaccine proved to be effective two-thirds of the time, and "there were no fatalities."


According to the AP article, this was going on almost at the same time that Nazi doctors were being prosecuted for war crimes in Nuremberg. By 1947 this had resulted in the "Nuremberg Code," a set of international rules put in place to protect the rights of human test subjects. Obviously many American doctors ignored this new code, reasoning that it applied to Nazi atrocities, not American medicine. Lest we forget, it was that very same "we're the good guys" attitude of national hubris that gave birth to the Nazi fervor in the first place.

All the same, the postwar period saw the massive expansion of the U.S. pharmaceutical and health care industries, accompanied by a boom in both government and corporate experiments on inmates of American detention facilities. By the 1960s, "at least half the states allowed prisoners to be used as medical guinea pigs," the AP found.


The way the place was starting to be eaten alive by ivy was intriguing. Many of its exterior walls were covered in it, and several windows looked as if the vines had smashed the glass out so that they could spread inside and begin feasting on the asylum's guts.


Unfortunately the B-Building's interior had been gutted completely bare, and looked like it was ready for demolition. As a result our fascination with the place faded rather quickly into a blur of monotonous sameness. There was an auditorium in the center of the complex that was dark and pretty plain, so I don't really have any photos of it.


On the outside it was a beautiful building, but it raised a sort of false hope that the interior would be equally as attractive. Albert Kahn clearly was instructed to keep costs down on the design of this project. But we knew that one day--one day soon--the Center for Forensic Psychology at the C-Building would be shut down, and we could explore the "new side" of the complex.


Solariums (sun porches) were attached to the ends of each patient ward:


Chisel ended up getting a job out by Ann Arbor and his commute took him past Ypsi every day, so he was able to scope the place out regularly to see when they would be shutting down for good. We had already seen the new facility that the CFP would be moving to, no more than a mile to the north of the present dungeon, but it was still under construction. Both facilities are visible from the freeway. Signs along the way warn, PRISON AREA—DO NOT PICK UP HITCHIKERS.


One night in March of 2005 Chisel was on his way home from work and swung by Ypsi, to report that it was empty and the flags were gone...game-on!


The very next morning, we trekked out there in the snow to see if we could infiltrate the "new side" of the complex. We headed directly to the basement and into the tunnel leading to the C-Building. Chisel knew how to get in because once he had found a tunnel with a heavy locked door at the end, with light and noise of machinery coming from the other side. He was also certain that this door could be easily jimmied with a pocketknife.


We found the door, but the lock mechanism had been upgraded since he was there last. We tried in vain for several minutes to trip it with a knife, then gave up and looked for another way in. Turned out we accidentally found the tunnel leading to the active powerhouse. That was a bit of a surprise. We were walking through this cold, cruddy tunnel that had been abandoned for years, then all of a sudden we came to a part that we had never seen before where steps led up, and there were lights and heat on...


How we had never been in this one before was beyond any of us. It stopped at a locked screen door, but we found that the tunnel dipped underneath the door and continued on the other side.


If we crawled in the passage where the pipes went under this doorway, we could pop up on the other side and keep going onward to what we would later learn was the powerhouse. We were in stealth mode, because this building we were under had lights and heat on, and it seemed like Scruffy the Janitor could be sitting just around the corner out of our view, thumbing through a copy of Juggs. Or for all we knew maintenance guys could still come through this part of the tunnel every so often, or they might hear our footsteps echoing at the other end.


We crept forward silently as the tunnel became a narrow 12-foot tall corridor with pipes on both sides. All of a sudden it jogged to the left and we found ourselves in the brightly lit basement of the noisy powerhouse! We had been in the active powerhouse of Northville Regional before, and of all places in that complex, the powerhouse was the one place you didn’t want to be—men were on duty there 24 hours a day.


Nonetheless, we tiptoed forward inch by inch, adrenaline flowing, ears perked, eyes darting everywhere looking for telltale warning signs (such as steaming cups of coffee, etc.), and using only hand signals for communication. No one seemed to be about, so Chisel and I slowly, slowly crept up the steps to take a peek topside. Chisel was in front of me, and I was listening as hard as humanly possible for any sounds of movement or speech. We were halfway up the stairs when suddenly Chisel froze, then without a word turned wide-eyed back toward me, breaking into a dash. Instinctively the rest of us did the same. We were all sprinting full-tilt back to the tunnel, and all I could hear was the sound of our adrenaline-driven feet pounding the ground at hyper speed. We forced ourselves to stop several yards into the tunnel to assess the situation.


I asked Chisel what he saw and he said he heard a car pull up to the building, no mistake about it. Since the powerhouse was definitely not where we wanted to be anyway, we hastily backtracked to the old B-Building's basement to look for another way to the "new side." Amazingly, we found yet another tunnel in the far west end of the basement that led to a locked door at the end with light coming from the other side. We couldn't jimmy this one with a knife either. This was hair-raising in and of itself, because for all we knew, there could be a security guard sitting on the other side of the door listening to all of this. And at Michigan's vacant institutions, the watchmen are retired corrections officers employed by the state, not rent-a-cops. That means big angry dudes who will smear your sorry ass to the ground, then radio for the police to come. No empty threats; we knew that from our experience at Northville.

We started to think we had been thwarted, but we knew we just had to get in this place...the potential looting opportunities were mind-boggling; we were convinced there was a ton of straightjackets and other kick-ass leftover swag to find in there. We decided to go to the roof of the building we were in to get a look at the "new side" and hopefully get a better picture of the situation. Well, we didn't see anything. The place looked sealed tight as hell, but at least it seemed the surveillance cameras didn’t work anymore—they no longer swiveled around. We began listlessly searching around for something that would help us get in, but it was in vain—nothing was in here except a bunch of leaves and debris. Chisel said, "If only we could find something to pry with...like this crowbar here!"


We saw him stoop down and pull a three-foot long #$%@ing iron crowbar out of the leaves. What a fun coincidence. We named our newfound iron friend Russell, as in "Russell Crowbar." Because everyone knows it's in the rules that every crowbar must have a name.


I retreated for a bit to check on the scene outside. Once the door had been beaten into submission, we immediately went back into stealth-mode, stupid as that may sound (being that we had just made enough noise to convince any person who might have been in the building that a Tyrannofuckingsaurus was chomping its way in). We scanned for motion sensors and cameras, finding none. The lights were on in this pure-white painted tunnel, which went straight ahead and to the left, both ending in another solid steel door after merely a few yards. Talk about a let-down. One of us advanced to each door to see if they were open while the others stayed behind in case we had to bolt.


The door directly ahead was open, and I called the others. We were in. Chisel stashed Russell in a room in the basement of B-Building and we continued onward, adrenaline surging in our veins.


We were back in full stealth mode now as we moved forward into this unfamiliar territory. It took several minutes to successfully cover one entire corridor, as we were painstakingly scanning every square inch of the walls and pipe-cluttered ceiling for cameras or sensors. We made no sound, and only whispered. It was grueling, but this is the only way one goes about this sort of business without getting pinched.


After a few turns in the tunnel, we came to a security phone on the wall. We decided it best to pick up the receiver to listen for a dial tone. It was dead. Which was a little bit of a relief—granted this was only one line, but if all phone service was cut, that meant there were probably no real alarms. It also meant the likelihood of there being guards stationed inside the building was lessened. [Ah, I miss the days before battery-backup cellular alarms and game cameras]


This place was clean and fresh...nothing at all like the B-Building we had just left. All the lights were on and everything was running. There were some doors now, leading into maintenance rooms, and a wheelchair sat in the middle of the hall. We found a stairwell door, but it was locked. That was our priority—to find an escape route if needed, and also to get out of this damned basement so we could see what was going on topside. For all we knew, we could've been surrounded by the entire Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department. 

We found what was marked as a "triage room" that had a couple gurneys and beds in it, and one of those mental hospital wheelchairs with the tiny wheels:


We moved on upstairs, still constantly on the lookout for cameras and sensors, and listening for the bloodcurdling sound of jingling keys being inserted into a doorlock. At the end of this hall we finally found an open stairwell.


We decided to explore from the top floor down, so we went up to the third floor and poked our head out. It was a disgustingly bland, modernized office corridor, just like you'd find anywhere else. There were some generic papers laying about, office furniture, and some wilting plants. We found the windows and the coast looked clear.


Naturally I didn't take a lot of photos in this building due to our heightened emphasis on caution, and since my friends were shooting lots of photos I didn't feel the need to shoot as much (this was towards the end of my days of shooting film).


We fanned out, tossing offices for their contents, and some interesting things like audio tapes with patient-doctor interviews on them. We also found some official Center for Forensic Psychology handbooks that had maps of the complex in them on page five, which I promptly tore out and folded into my pocket.


There was the occasional shower room or hydrotherapy room, allowing for some really moody, cliché hospital shots.


There was also the hardened nurses' station in the middle of each ward, where they could keep an eye on things and store the logs, keys, drugs, or other stuff they didn't want the patients getting their hands on. They were roughly pentagonal, and had security glass:


Linen closets were another common room to be found in every ward, and the laundry chutes that were built into the walls nearby:


It was starting to get dark out, which made me nervous, due to the ease of our movements being detected outside through the lighted windows. We continued in this fashion for an hour or so, moving down a floor each time we had explored all we could due to locked doors blocking our progress. We knew however that we would eventually find a stash of keys to this place.


The second and first floors were basically the same. Though we did find some old guard uniforms in a seclusion room and some mental cognition tests like what would be given to either preschoolers or psychopaths. Geometry puzzles, and "What's wrong with this picture?" type stuff, where you see a kid riding a bicycle with no pedals, or water flowing uphill, etc.

We kept some of it so we could try it out later when we were drunk, or maybe partly out of an unconscious desire to see if we belonged locked up in this place, too. We were spread out on the first floor by a glass-door entrance when all of a sudden I see one of my companions slam his back up against the wall and start running in my direction.


I knew shit had hit the fan, and hissed down the hall to the others, "Time to go!" We all converged at a blind corner near an elevator, and I asked what the situation was. Apparently he had seen a car drive by the doors slowly, then thought he heard it honk its horn, almost as a signal to another car or person. Well, I figured we had outstayed our welcome, and led the way back to the stairs.

We fled as fast as we possibly could, trying to remember how to get out of this maze of a building. All I could hear was the sound of our pounding feet being drowned out by the rush of wind past my ears as I kept my eyes trained at the windows for signs of headlights. I had made a conscious effort all day not to touch any doors without gloves on.


We finally made it all the way back to the main entrance of the old, darkened, dripping B-Building, and waited to see if the coast was clear. After several silent minutes, we headed out across the snowy fields, but as soon as we stepped out the door, we heard the distinct sound of someone accidentally stepping on a piece of conduit inside the building we had just left. When I looked back I saw a weird bluish flicker inside where we were just standing that looked like a camera flash or LED lamp. Probably was just another unrelated trespasser, but this was back before the place became really popular, so it was still very odd to see.

Despite this minor incident, we made many return trips during the ensuing weeks to finish exploring the new side of the hospital we had cracked.


We moved through the C-Building with much more confidence than before, though it was no easier to navigate due to the confusing nature of its floorplan. We found whole corridors filled with nothing but seclusion rooms, bare tile cells with thick steel doors and tiny windows. There were also wards with beds that were still made up, and refrigerators in break rooms with food in them that had expired not even three weeks prior.


Ypsilanti State Hospital's population peaked at 4,200 patients and about 1,000 staff in 1958, but it was around 1951 that Ypsi gained the greatest fame it was likely to ever have. The Michigan Daily article says that Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, decided to try a novel group therapy idea on three schizophrenic patients--Leon, Joseph, and Clyde--each one of whom was convinced that they were Jesus Christ. Obviously there can only be one Christ, so Rokeach threw all three of them into the same room to let them fight it out (which, for what it's worth, would have been my solution to the problem as well). The supposed logical contradiction of having two other Christs in the room, it was thought, would cure the patients by showing them their delusional mental state.

What transpired was explained in Rokeach's resulting book published in 1964, entitled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, which actually became rather famous in the psychology circles, and was quite readable. It was required reading in many collegiate psychology courses for a generation.


A contemporary article about Rokeach's controversial study appeared in Slate Magazine, which explained that the patients actually lived together for 25 months as part of the experiment. "The early meetings were stormy," it said. Some of the initial dialogue between the three Christs went as follows:
"You oughta worship me, I'll tell you that!" one of the Christs yelled. "I will not worship you! You're a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!" another snapped back. "No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!" the third interjected, barely concealing his anger.
The book is full of fun exchanges of dialogue such as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rokeach's experiment of the three Christs was not entirely ethical, since apparently he was unable to refrain from messing with the Christs' heads by intentionally giving them false information, to see what effect it would have on their delusions.


The Three Christs of Ypsilanti describes how Rokeach and his research assistants "blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity" according to Slate. For example, 
In one of the most bizarre sections, the researchers begin colluding with the men's delusions in a deceptive attempt to change their beliefs from within their own frame of reference. The youngest patient, Leon, starts receiving letters from the character he believes to be his wife, "Madame Yeti Woman," in which she professes her love and suggests minor changes to his routine. Then Joseph, a French Canadian native, starts receiving faked letters from the hospital boss advising certain changes in routine that might benefit his recovery. Despite an initially engaging correspondence, both the delusional spouse and the illusory boss begin to challenge the Christs' beliefs more than is comfortable, and contact is quickly broken off.
For researchers to play tricks on patients (such as getting their hopes up with things like nonexistent lovers), with no concern for how they will feel once the experiment is over, shows a disregard for patient well-being that goes against the principles of the clinical profession. Doctors are supposed to help people, not harm them.


As it so happens, the experiment did little to actually change the Christs' minds or resolve their delusional mental processes, though they spent plenty of time arguing and even coming to blows on one occasion.
Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as "Dr Righteous Idealed Dung" instead of his previous moniker of "Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another's claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the "machines" inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are "crazy" or "duped" or that they don't really mean what they say.
Rokeach later apologized for the manipulative nature of the experiment in an afterword to his book's 1984 edition: "I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives." The story of the Three Christs even made it onto National Public Radio in an episode of "Snap Judgement," which offers a lot more insight into the fascinating story behind the study.


Eventually we no longer really needed Russell, due to having found all the keys to the place in the front office of the C-Building, and a list telling which ones work where. After that, instead of popping doors, we locked them behind us so no one could follow.

At any rate, we have found all kinds of good stuff at Ypsi, including arm-restraints, and patient files detailing violent confrontations and destructive behavior. We found some of the surveillance camera tapes from when the place was in use, and another interesting tape labeled "Sharon's Party," which we originally thought was more of the security guards' porn collection but actually contained footage of the hospital in its last days, made by one of the last employees. We also found the gym—which is actually a pair of twin gyms, side by side. The place was pristine; the hardwood gleamed and was unmarred.


We even accessed the former security office, which had up until a few days ago contained all of the controls and monitors for the cameras that we used to watch sweeping the grounds from the rooftops:


There was also an alarm panel there with all kinds of colored buttons on it for each different type of emergency alarms.

Not far away was the visitation room, just like in prison where the inmates sat on one side of the bulletproof glass and the visitor sat on the other.


For a long time the warehouse building held us at bay, since it was still being used to some extent and had the most security...


The creeping ivy was even more out of control here than in any other part of the complex, and had almost completely enveloped half the building. Because the main floor of the warehouse was so hot, and because we had to use such extreme caution and vigilance, I never took out my camera to document the aisles and aisles of cool stuff that was in there.


One of the things that was the most disconcerting about snooping around this area was the fact that the employees had left a radio playing loudly in part of the workshop, tuned to a talk radio station, which if you were creeping up from a distance and listening for sounds of activity, made it sound a little too much like there were real people present, and almost impossible to be sure that there weren't, even though you knew it was a radio. We couldn't turn the radio off however, or they would know that we had been there.


The upstairs was mostly empty, and thankfully a lot less stressful, but this ivy room was pretty interesting...like leaks bursting through the hull of a sinking ship.


Surplus patient wardrobes:


The best Ypsi experience by far was the night we met up with a friend from New York one weekend in May, 2005. We had never yet made a night-mission to Ypsi (even though we had left it after dark several times), and we had heard that lately a bunch of kiddies had started hanging out at the place at night. So we were determined to have some fun and go mess with these kids a little.


We had all been drinking all day, and with Slayer blasting out of Chisel's car speakers as we approached the darkened Ypsi on a balmy spring night, it was a little too much like going to the “Old Tunnels”.... As we crossed the dew-laden fields under a greenish crescent moon and approached the dark, glaring edifice, we could already see the flashlight beams of teeny ghost-hunters through the windows on the second floor. Lights off, we snuck in and immediately heard the voices of several people on the auditorium stage.

We knew that sneaking up on these kids would be impossible with the sizes of our respective groups, so we waited in the complete dark of the hall nearby until one of them wandered off from the group. He was using only his cell phone display for light, and when it shone over the circle of boots of a group of motionless, black-clad figures surrounding him in the dark he just shuddered violently from sheer fright, and almost fainted. That kid was so relieved when he realized we weren’t about to slit his throat that he started blubbering like a baby, and most likely messed his pants as well.


We went over to the "new side" and hung out in the gym for awhile, then got on the roof and found one of the big surveillance cameras that used to swivel across the fenced prisoner yards. We pulled that bastard in and (with Russell's help) opened it up and took out the actual camera unit inside for "analysis." Later we decided to go to the warehouse building, or “Stuff” Building, as we had come to call it, but when we stepped outside, we saw a most amazing thing. Up in the sky there were weird green rays of light shifting and shooting about like flames—it was the northern lights. I had seen the northern lights twice before up north, but never this far south or this close to the city. The others had never seen them before. So we ended up chilling out there for a good hour and a half, laying on the cold cement, staring straight up at the sky drinking SoCo, smokin' doobies, and eating chicken wings.

It was surreal; one of those erie, once-in-a-lifetime experiences...like Halloween in springtime. It is one of those things that just doesn’t get boring—enjoying a great buzz, the fresh scent of nighttime air, the warm tingle of asbestos in your lungs, watching a bizarre show of natural beauty and passin' the fifth around...one of those kind of moments in life that make our pitiful existence truly sweet.

This is some loot I ganked from C-Building:


The key is a ward key, marked C-6-2, meaning building C, ward 6, second floor. Ward 6 was the violent ward if I remember correctly from reading the patient files, and I think was also part of what was reused briefly as the stop-gap Center for Forensic Psychology. It’s got a piece of rod soldered to it, I suppose for greater control under situations of duress, to help with retention, or to help with avoiding fumbling while trying to slam a door shut on a bunch of rioting loonies to seal them into the ward?

I found this in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection:


It’s an architect’s conceptual drawing (taken from Albert Kahn, Assoc.) of what Ypsi was supposed to look like. Well, as you can see from the aerial shot below, it never quite got that big, but it definitely illustrates that just as in any other Kahn-designed commercial building it is made ready for infinite expansion by adding on extra wings as needed.  It is essentially the Packard Plant of mental hospitals.

Here's a couple more aerial shots: 12 


Like most other mental hospitals in America Ypsilanti began declining in both quality and quantity by the 1960s, which would continue until it closed. The Michigan Daily also said that a survey of Ypsi's patient buildings was done in 1969, finding that they were obsolete because they "were all designed for custodial care of the insane and are not well suited for a therapeutic program of care and treatment for the mentally ill." In 1972 the State of Michigan revamped the names of all its mental hospitals and Ypsilanti State Hospital became Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital (YRPH).

Michigan Governor John Engler went on a crusade cut state spending on mental health by closing all the state psychiatric hospitals. Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital was one of the first to go, closed in 1991, though the "C-Building," and the various service buildings on the property obviously stayed in partial use until early March of 2005 under the title CFP, or, "Center for Forensic Psychology"—meaning it was a hardcore detention facility that housed the 210 State of Michigan inmates who were either unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity, or who pleaded innocent to murder by reason of insanity.

Governor Engler's biography on michigan.gov does not mention any crusade against mental hospitals in his list of accomplishments, and instead classifies it as "serving an additional 45,000 patients annually with mental health services." I wasn't aware that Governor Engler was also qualified to administer such care (a little sarcasm there). Anyway, according to a September 2012 report by the Detroit Free Press, the rapid dismantling of Michigan's once-vast state hospital system in the 1990s perhaps did not achieve quite the positive outcome that was hoped for--at least partly because the "community-based" resources that were supposed to pick up the slack were never given the proper funding they were promised.

As the state hospitals closed, tens of thousands of patients who didn't have family to make sure they got proper care were literally turned out on the streets, "with a bus ticket to Detroit, and one bottle of pills," as the local saying goes. After that, they just ended up homeless and untreated. Many could not afford their pills, could not get a ride to go get their pills regularly, didn't want to take their pills anymore, sold their pills for narcotics that were more fun, or just did not have the mental stability to do anything on their own. Naturally many of these people ended up back in the prison system for vagrancy or other crimes, or froze to death under an overpass. The Michigan Daily said that the Washtenaw Housing Alliance did a survey around 2005 that estimated 42% of homeless people in that county were mentally ill.

Yes, the state hospitals were essentially corrupt dungeons where patients were imprisoned and abused on the taxpayer's dime, but the alternative was so poorly executed that it hasn't proved any better. The Free Press said that "tens of thousands" of former mental hospital inmates have merely been shuffled around to the jails, prisons, and homeless shelters of the state--maybe that's what Engler meant by "serving 45,000 patients"? Kind of asinine, seeing as the state hospitals were originally created for the very purpose of getting the mentally ill out of the overcrowded jails and off the streets. I guess the solution now is to just keep spending our money building more jails, because more jails = less crime, right?

A psychology article written in 2013 by Terry Axelrod, a former intern at Ypsilanti State Hospital, recounts her personal memories of working there in its last days:
My "patients" had been in the institution an average of 40 years. Their permanently discolored fingers from incessant chain smoking, their soft padded hospital slippers and hospital gowns, rows of human beings sitting in straight-backed chairs lined up around the perimeter of the enormous empty "day room" in the "locked unit"—it all came back to me when I watched this video, taken several years after I left there....

I had remembered my rodent-infested cement office, the bars on the windows, the dim lighting, but what I had forgotten were the sounds of the place: jangling keys on massive key-rings sported by the wardens, the heavy metal doors slamming and echoing all the way down the dark underground corridors, the faint whimpers and occasional profane outbursts from the patients who might have refused to take their daily Thorazine or were headed back from an unspeakable treatment.
Axelrod recalled what was supposed to be "a whole new era" of community mental health once the institutional walls were to come down, cynically referring to it as "the start of homelessness."
Sometimes I wonder, as I see the lines at the soup kitchens, the shanty towns under freeway bridges across America, what have we done, closing down those big awful places. The promise of "community mental health" seemed so exciting back then. Mental illness is no longer as stigmatized as it was 40+ years ago. It seems everyone knows at least one person, including themselves, who is suffering from it.

Maybe just getting people back out in the community helped to de-mystify mental illness in the general public and to set the stage for greater acceptance. Not so sure about that but I'd like to think those asylums taught us at least a little something.
Ypsilanti State Hospital was totally demolished in the summer of 2008 and is now the site of the Toyota Engineering & Manufacturing / Technical Center, at 8777 Platt Road.


References:
Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection, vertical files