What Makes Institutions Bad


A blog from Mel Baggs (7 years ago)

worst institutions have lots and lots and lots of staff. They have
beautiful grounds that people are more or less free to walk around on. Every room is decorated in ways that suggest a regular, pleasant house —
and if anything is stained or broken someone fixes it, washes it, and
paints over it within a day. There are no locks on the doors.

of the staff are gentle and would never physically abuse an inmate. They are highly trained at redirecting and calming anyone who becomes
violent.  If you go outside, they follow you at a discreet distance,
where they think you can’t see, to give the illusion of freedom and
privacy. Their every movement and tone suggests sweetness and

But they treat everyone as if they were somewhere
varying, between infancy and four years old. With everything —
everything — that entails.

Because they do not use physical
restraint, they have to restrain you in other ways. They do it by such
skillful manipulation that if you ever find out you were being
manipulated, it’s long after the fact.  If you confront them on it
they’ll sweetly and politely tell you they have no idea what you mean. And they will continue to somehow always get you to do what they want,
or else to feel awful about not doing so.

Glamour is a word that
can refer to a kind of faery magic that can make a hovel appear to
humans as a splendid palace.  I often use the word to mean a similar
kind of deception — a beautiful facade over a terrible reality.  I make
it part of my life’s work to see through glamour.  And I see a whole lot
of glamour used in conversations about institutions.

The above
institution I have just described has a layer of glamour over it as
well.  If you look beneath the surface, it’s utterly horrifying.  Most
people don’t know how to see beneath the surface.  Even when you
personally are in such a situation, it can be hard to see.

feel as if there is something pressing down on you, muffling and
suffocating.  But when you look around, there’s no outward sign of it.
So why are you not happy?  You must be an awful person to feel so awful
when all these nice staff people are doing so much to make you feel at
home.  You look around, you try to search for what is bothering you, and
it’s nowhere.  But you’re in agony. Whenever you think nobody’s
looking, you cry, sometimes it feels like you’ll never stop.  Deep down
inside you, you know something is going terribly wrong.  But trying to
pinpoint it is like trying to get a firm grip on a cloud.

Get a
glimpse under the glamour and you see that all that has happened is a
bunch of substitutions. They stopped locking the doors, but they
started following you everywhere and subtly guiding you where they want
you. The institution itself is positioned so that even if you tried to
run away you couldn’t get anywhere.  They stopped restraining your body,
but their manipulation is like a permanent set of shackles on your
mind.  Their sweetness in manner hides the fact that they are sweet to
you the way they would be sweet to an infant — even when you’re pushing
sixty.  Treat you like that long enough and you begin to respond and
structure yourself like an infant, and the damage that does inside can’t
be calculated.

I literally have nightmares about that type of
institution. When I’m wrapped up in the glamour, this terrible calm
takes over. It feels like something soft and smooth pressing all over my
skin, and the temptation is to surrender to it and feel its fake calm,
fake happiness. Then I wake up and want to vomit I am so terrified and
disgusted with what I’ve just experienced.

This past summer I
attended a recreation program for DD people. And it was so much like a
replica of my nightmare it was scary. Sometimes I would get smothered
under the glamour, other times I wanted to scream.  I cried more that
week than I normally do in years, yet I was at every turn made to feel
as if the problem was me. I can be so very passive but even my most
passive wasn’t good enough for them.  

One day I looked around and
saw that everyone there was older.  From the era of big institutions.
Where they were used to being treated like this, and mostly could
out-passive me any day (which is scary because I can get very passive).
I talked to a woman whose roommate goes there — she said she goes in a
grown woman and comes out acting like a young child.  And not in a way
that’s just her self-expression — this is one of those places that molds
you into that form.

To survive in a place like that something
inside you has to break.  It’s impossible to fully explain to someone
who hasn’t been in that position.  Something inside you has to die.  And
it doesn’t die any less because you got one of the “good” (read:
glamour-covered) institutions.  The same forces are crushing down on you
either way, the difference is cosmetic.

The worst part of
institutions is not physical violence, obvious forms of abuse or
neglect.  It’s not even the experiences you don’t get to have. It’s the
damage that is done right down to your soul, by living under the power
of other human beings. Glamour makes no difference. Prettiness makes no
difference. Size makes no difference.  Even length of time makes less
difference past a certain point than you’d think.

Until you
understand that damage — what it is, what it means, where it comes from —
you will never get rid of institutions.  You have to understand it on a
very intimate level or you will reproduce it without knowing what
you’re doing.

I still can’t tell you how long I was
institutionalized.  I can tell you roughly the amount of time I lived in
mental institutions and other residential facilities. But that’s not
the same as the amount of time I was in institutions.  I call what I got
when I got out, “community institutionalization”.  That’s where you
live with your parents but you spend most of the day being driven
between various places — segregated schools, segregated day programs,
segregated rec programs, each one with institutional power structures
behind it. I remember mental institutions where they walked us to
different parts of the grounds for different parts of the day. There’s
not so much difference between that and being driven.

transition between a locked ward on a mental institution and later
periods of my life was so absolutely gradual that by the time I was
“free”, I never noticed. That’s how they wanted it.  I simply created
the institutional walls around me wherever I went.  That’s why I put
“free” in quotes.  If I had been someone else, I would have been free.
Because I was me — because of my particular history — I was not.  There
were invisible walls all around me and I certainly never noticed the
real ones were not there.  Which was exactly the purpose behind what was
done to me. They didn’t think I could function outside an institution
so they carefully built one inside my head, making me truly unable to
function anywhere.

I can get over the physical violence.
The attempts on my life.  The neglect.  The sexual abuse.  The parts of
“normal life” that I missed and still am missing.  So long as I
physically survive (which even the recent rec program almost avoided) I
will and can get over these things.

I am not sure to what extent I
will ever get back the parts of me that died in order for the rest of
me to survive.  Every now and then I notice I’ve gotten a little bit
back, and I think that finally everything will be okay.  And then a
little time passes and I realize how much is still gone.  

I’m not even saying I can’t be reasonably happy.  But there are parts of me I still
have no idea if I will ever get back.  Those parts weren’t destroyed by
ugly bare rooms, horrific physical or sexual abuse, the loss of normal
experiences, or any of the rest of the things most people think when
they think of bad institutions. Those things happened to me and they
are bad. But on a real basic level they are not the cause of the

The cause of the problem is a certain exercise of power.
 Of person over unperson. And in order to survive it the inmates have
to become as much of that unperson as they can manage. And that does
violent damage deep inside the self, that can be incredibly hard to
repair.  It’s violent even when it comes with purported love and
sweetness and light.

And until people can stop forcing us to
damage ourselves in this way, institutions will continue.  That, not
anything else, is the core of what is wrong with them.  But it’s much
harder to put that into songs or images or even just words, that the
average person would comprehend.

What Makes Institutions Bad

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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