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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Legal scholar Dr. Steven Brown comments on the Wyatt decision showcased in the new Bryce Hospital museum

Updated: 7 days ago

The Bryce Hospital Museum project has been a longtime coming. Working under the Kelton Design banner, I began the script in 2020. The museum opening took place in June 2024. 

The script for the Bryce Hospital Museum naturally took me to the topic of mental health and the law. That, in turn, naturally took me to Dr. Steven Brown, professor of constitutional law at Auburn University. Dr. Brown and I collaborated on the exhibit Alabama Justice for the state’s bicentennial starting in 2019. 

Dr. Steven Brown of Auburn

Dr. Brown had many insights into Bryce Hospital’s history of litigation and reform, culminating in the Wyatt v. Stickney decision of 2003. He offers the following comments, lightly edited for flow: 

“I think it is fair to say that people were warehoused, but it is important to remember that it wasn’t just the mentally ill who were cared for there. If you were tired of great Aunt Mabel, you could just drop her off at Bryce Hospital. Many Alabamians did just that,” Dr. Brown says. “Indeed, Ricky Wyatt was just a troubled teen when his family got tired of him and dropped him off at a mental hospital. He did not have a mental illness.”

Dr. Brown continues: 

“The Wyatt decision did more than just look at treatment. It stipulated the number of hours patients should be outside, the number of psychiatrists, nurses, and staff per so many patients, the minimum amount of square feet each patient required (so they were not housed together in small cells), the temperature of the water and AC/heating, the right to look at their letters and packages, and the right not to be lobotomized. It was a huge decision.”

The new exhibit at the old Bryce Hospital captures this warts-and-all history of the treatment of mental health in Alabama. It’s important to view Alabama not just as an offender but as a hotbed of societal change. (We could say something similar about civil rights history.)

What happened at Bryce Hospital was not unique to Alabama or even to the rest of the South. But the legal challenges to the status quo were unique. The Wyatt standards changed the treatment of people with mental illnesses not just in Alabama but everywhere. The new exhibit at Bryce Hospital celebrates this fact.

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