Patton State Hospital is one of California’s institutions for the criminally insane. <i>Asylum</i> takes us behind the walls of this facility, presenting straightforward accounts of the lives of several inmates and the medical treatment they receive on their journey to mental wholeness. The patients suffer from manic depression and aggressive persecution complexes that have triggered crimes ranging from murder and arson to poodle bashing. As noted by one of Patton’s staff members, “They don’t get any worse than they get here. We’re the bottom line for the treatment of psychosis.”
In a vérité tradition, director Joan Churchill directs our interest beyond images of torturous, scream-filled hallways and strapped bodies to focus on the diverse group of patients and workers at Patton by letting us eavesdrop on their daily rituals, routine checks and therapy sessions. These more clinical scenes are fleshed out through the dramatic personal stories of several patients as they attempt to regain control of their lives and overcome their illness. The film enables us to experience both the familiar and the unfathomable within mental illness and breaks apart old myths about the insane and the asylum. Surprisingly positive and devoid of sentimentality, <i>Asylum</i> is also a powerful indictment of the laws of the land which govern both institutions like this one and the larger community outside.
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