Begun during a time of disability rights crisis in the early 1970s, this book will remain a basic touchstone about the horrors of Willowbrook, a clear commentary on the fundamentals of deinstitutionalization and a classic about conscience, economic interests and public policy. Dr. William Bronston’s and other photo journalist’s camera speed were set at 1/300th second. The 82 images captured at Willowbrook were all taken in less than 1 second but will last 100 years. The crimes against humanity here are vivid. Systems change is much slower with Americans with developmental disabilities and our society’s older citizens still living with segregated models that have crossed three Centuries. We are an impatient people and this outdated dehumanizing mindset must end.
Colleen Wieck, PhD
Executive Director, Minnesota Governor’ Council on Developmental Disabilities
When Dr. Bill Bronston and his friend and colleague Dr. Mike Wilkins contacted me in January 1972 with the biggest news story of my career, it was not the first time our paths had crossed. We met a couple of years before on the mean streets of El Barrio, Spanish Harlem. I was a rabble-rousing street lawyer then, representing the area’s desperately poor in matters like Landlord/Tenant court and providing legal advice to a dynamic group of Puerto Rican activists, the Young Lords.
Modeled somewhat after the Black Panthers, The Lords were the first Puerto Rican activist group not primarily interested in the political status of the island Commonwealth, but in the health and well-being of the State-side residents of El Barrio.
Attracted to the Lords’ activism, in that Spring and Summer of 1970, Bill and Mike were crusading doctors providing free health care, including treatment for malnutrition and for lead paint poisoning, an epidemic in the sprawling, rundown largely Latino neighborhood that stretched in those days from East 96th Street all the way to the Triboro Bridge, Harlem River Drive and the companion neighborhood across the river, the South Bronx. The Lords were raising hell about the dearth of city services and poor health conditions of residents. Mike and Bill were their doctors and I was one of their core attorneys.
Propelled into public life by my representation of the Lords, I ended up at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and then on Channel 7’s revolutionary Eyewitness News Team, the first racially and ethnically integrated news ensemble in American history. Once I began my career as a journalist, Drs. Bronston and Wilkins led me to several stories, including the one that would make history and change our lives and the lives of tens of thousands of others.
The series of reports involved an institution on Staten Island called Willowbrook. In conversations with the doctors, their workplace was described as a nightmare of abuse and neglect. Euphemistically called a State School, Willowbrook was the largest institution for the developmentally disabled in the country, if not the world. Disgusted by conditions the doctors described as inhumane, they were in the process of quitting their jobs. Quoting from the initial expose that resulted from their whistleblowing crusade, the doctors, “told me it would be bad, it was horrible.”
I was a 27-year old rookie reporter, and the revelation that so wretched a place existed in the city at the center of the world rattled and outraged millions of viewers, rousing them to demand change. For the suffering families of the more than 5,000 residents that chorus was a long-awaited affirmation. Willowbrook and similar institutions across the country were nothing more than warehouses for the disabled.
Help was on the way.
Driven by public rage and intense media interest, Bronston and Wilkins ---of course steered by the families of the residents---crafted the movement to change the way society cared for those with disabilities. The big institutions were on their way out. In their place, a wide-spread, ever-growing network of small, community-based residences has been created.
Under the guidance of Bronston and his colleagues and allies, a societal change as profound as any, ever, has fundamentally altered the status of the disabled in society. Hundreds of thousands across the country have been freed of their institutional prisons and given a new lease on a more decent life. Their friends and families have similarly had their lives positively impacted. Challenges abound. Much remains to be done and the issues are constant. Many of them are chronicled in this fine book, but Bronston and company have already changed the destinies of millions.
Fox Television Journalist
The shocking horrors of Willowbrook State School have been exposed and will never be forgotten. In Doctor William Bronston’s defining book, Public Hostage Public Ransom: Ending Institutional America, he takes on all of the America’s institutions, the segregated nursing home industry, that have not learned the lesson of the tragedy of Willowbrook. His muckraking efforts remind one of a latter-day Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, or Jacob Riis. His book is a scathing reminder of all we still have to do to build a sympathetic and just world for the many who are unable to find it for themselves.
American Film Producer, The Elephant Man
In the 31st year since the ADA was passed, numerous individuals still question why the ADA was necessary and lack understanding of this country’s sad history of decades long inhumane treatment of individuals with disabilities. Dr. Bronston, who worked at Willowbrook in the early 70s, has not remained silent about this inhumanity. After Congress explicitly identified unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities as a form of discrimination, his book vividly shows why the ADA was enacted.
If individuals did not understand that unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination after the Olmstead case was decided, they certainly will now. Dr. Bronston’s book very clearly shows why the Olmstead case has rightly been called the Brown v. Board of Education of the disability rights movement. The sad images of inhumanity captured at Willowbrook confirm the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Olmstead when she stated:
. . .[I]nstitutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life; and
. . . [C]onfinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.
In every chapter, the message in his book is that segregation of individuals with disabilities must end, which is consistent with the constitutional promise to bring equal justice to all. Or, in the words of Aristotle, “life in the community is a necessary condition for a person’s complete flourishing as a human being.”
Judge Donavan Frank
Federal District Judge - Minnesota
I met Dr. Bronston (Bill) in 1972 and we have been profound friends and colleagues since then. He exposed me to the hell hole called Willowbrook State. School. Public Hostage should make you outraged. The mistreatment of disabled people in Willowbrook and the mistreatment today of disabled people living in institutions must be understood and together we must fight to provide people the supports they need to
live their lives integrated in our communities with dignity and respect. We as a society are responsible for these atrocities if we remain silent.
Geraldo Rivera, Journalist
Willowbrook and similar institutions across the country were nothing more than warehouses for the disabled.
Help was on the way.
Jonathan Sanger, Film Producer "Elephant Man"
His book is a scathing reminder of all we still have to do to build a sympathetic and just world for the many who are unable to find it for themselves.
Judge Jonathan Frank, Federal District Judge
After Congress explicitly identified unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities as a form of discrimination, his book vividly shows why the ADA was enacted.
Judith E. Heumann,
International Disability Rights Advocate
I met Dr. Bronston (Bill) in 1972 and we have been profound friends and colleagues since then. He exposed me to the hell hole called Willowbrook State. School. Public Hostage should make you outraged.
Judith E. Heumann
International Disability Rights Advocate
10 8 21
Dr. William Bronston has for more than five decades been an activist for the rights and humane treatment of people with disabilities. He is best known as the physician organizer at the forefront of the effort--eventually successful—to close down the massive institution known as the “Willowbrook State School and Hospital.” The name was a cruelly ironic misnomer, since the facility provided neither adequate medical treatment nor a meaningful education to its thousands of residents, many of them children. Instead, as recounted in Public Hostage, Public Ransom, the back wards of Willowbrook were rife with disease and physical and sexual abuse, , constituting an environment so stultifying that residents and staff alike were traumatized into a depressive apathy. Senator Robert Kennedy, visiting the facility in the 1960s, described it as “less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.”
A major part of Public Hostage, Public Ransom recounts Dr. Bronston’s efforts to reform the institution from within. Time and again, however, his efforts to ameliorate the crushing medical, physical, and emotional abuse of the institution are rebuffed by its administrators, and a state government led by a governor more interested in spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a gleaming new capitol complex than in saving the lives and health of its most vulnerable people. Dr. Bronston finally turned to the media and the courts, and after a long and bitter struggle he and his allies at last succeeded in closing Willowbrook down.
Dr. Bronston in the second half of Public Hostage gives readers an in-depth look at how and why places like Willowbrook existed in the first place, and how financial incentives, hard-wired into the way health care is delivered in this country, encourage institutionalization of one form or another at the expense of more humane, more effective, and more cost effective home based health care. The result has been the continual use of for profit nursing homes and “assistive living centers” to which millions of elders and people with disabilities remain consigned. One tragic side-effect to this has become evident during the recent Covid pandemic, where those residing and working in such group settings have been at enormously increased risk of infection, illness, and death.
Dr. Bronston in his book delivers a timely, well-written and meticulously documented argument that radical change is needed. His book is a must read for anyone interested in disability rights, elder rights and health care reform.
I highly recommend Public Hostage, Public Ransom.
Author and Educator