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America's Asylums In Photographs

In the 19th century, the mentally ill were often sent to horrific asylums. Today they fill the nation's jails; the conditions aren't much better. Last year, almost 1.1 million people with serious mental illnesses were arrested nearly 2 million times.

It's those old asylums — mostly closed, often abandoned — that have fascinated photographer Christopher Payne. A few years ago, he put together a book of images from those buildings, titled Asylum: Inside The Closed World Of State Mental Hospitals.

Payne's photos reveal a world surprisingly suffused with color — a room full of rust-colored urns filled with the ashes of long-dead patients, a long hallway with brilliant teal paint peeling from the walls, a wall of multicolored toothbrushes still hanging on their hooks.

It's that photo in particular, taken at the old Hudson River State Hospital in New York, that still confounds Payne:

"For some reason, everyone left their toothbrushes there," he tells Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. "The fact that this little box of toothbrushes had survived on the wall while the rooms around it were crumbling was incredible."

While the words "insane asylum" conjure up images of dark, scary places, his photographs reveal buildings that are stunning, beautiful almost castle-like.

"The asylums of the 19th century — some of them were the largest buildings of their time," he says.

Those compounds were also self-sufficient; patients produced their own food and even generated their own electricity.

"In the beginning they had this notion — it was called moral treatment," Payne says. "The idea is that the afflicted would be removed from the city and put in one of these utopian environments and put to work."

Many state hospitals were closed down decades ago, as states radically reshaped their mental health systems and de-emphasized institutionalization. Most have remained empty since. Payne says it is likely they will be demolished, but perhaps his photos will, in a way, preserve them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.