In 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy visited several “institutions for the mentally retarded” in New York State. His descriptions of the conditions he found there, which were published widely in the media, shocked the American public and angered those in charge of the institutions.
Later that year, Dr. Burton Blatt visited five such institutions in the eastern states, with his photographer friend Fred Kaplan, who, armed with a hidden camera attached to his belt, took hundreds of photographs of their “darkest corridors and vestibules”. The result was a remarkable document called Christmas In Purgatory: A Photographic Essay On Mental Retardation, published in 1974.
“There is a hell on earth,” the essay begins, “and in America there is a special inferno.” It continues:
…we know, as well as do thousands of others who have been associated with institutions for the mentally retarded, that what Senator Kennedy claimed to have seen he did see. In fact, we know personally of few institutions for the mentally retarded in the United States completely free of dirt and filth, odors, naked patients groveling in their own feces, children in locked cells, horribly crowded dormitories, and understaffed and wrongly staffed facilities.