February 13, 2014

Mary Ellen Mark. Ward 81. Oregon State Hospital. Salem, Oregon


In 1975, photographer Mary Ellen Mark was assigned by a magazine to do a story on the making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. While there, she met, briefly, the women of Ward 81.

Ward 81 is the women’s security ward of the hospital, the only locked ward for women in the state. The women on this ward are considered dangerous to themselves or to others.

In February of 1976, Mary Ellen and Karen Folger Jacobs, a writer and social scientist, were given permission to live on the ward in order to photograph and interview the women. They spent thirty-six days on Ward 81.

At first glance, they could be almost any group of women in any institutional lounge or day room—college students, staff personnel, or patients in any medical hospital. But on closer examination, differences become apparent. Bodies slump just a shade more than you’ve ever seen bodies slump before. Flesh seems to respond more to gravity than to muscle and bone. Even the youngest and most slender of the women—and there are lots of young women here—have the beginnings of pot bellies. There’s a general impression of poor or missing teeth, of eyes that don’t focus properly, of clothes worn so sloppily they look like hand-me-downs from some undetermined era.

And then there are the scars. Nearly every body shows some sign of physical abuse. Some bodies are battlegrounds.

TV watching is definitely the main nonscheduled event on Ward 81. The set goes on shortly after wake-up at seven A.M., and is rarely turned off until well after bedtime at nine P.M. Between meals, meds (medication, which the patients receive four times a day), and quiet hours (three one-hour periods during which patients must remain in their rooms), most of the women can be found clutching a favorite ashtray, smoking nonstop and gazing at the set. There’s never much reaction to what they see there—but still they watch, almost in silence, speaking only to ask for a cigarette.

The women of Ward 81 do not hide their feelings about the problems that plague the ward. There are all sorts of complaints about lack of freedom, violations of patients’ rights, the horrors of meds and shock treatments, and the staff. But in the end, the talk always boils down to their confinement and the fact that most of the time the women of 81 have to live without men.

Ward 81 ceased to exist in November 1977 when it became the female segment of a coeducational treatment ward.

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