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The Lessons of Ward 12
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The abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad is no surprise to me. I learned about that particular variety of man's inhumanity to man first hand a long time ago, as a psychiatric technician at the Mendocino State Hospital in Northern California. I was only 18 during that hot summer of 1951, but the state deemed me old enough for the job.

I was mainly there, in any case, to play shortstop for the hospital-sponsored team that was among the best of California's many semi-professional baseball clubs. Three games a week in exchange for the hospital job that paid $300 a month, not bad for 1951.

Ballplayers were assigned to the ward for the criminally insane, since as athletes we were assumed to be tough enough to handle the sometimes violent patients there.

Ward 12 it was, in a squat, white concrete building, a fortress-like, supposedly escape-proof structure set apart from the rest of the hospital. Escorts led employees and visitors alike into the ward, first opening a heavy iron gate in a corner of a high electrified fence topped with barbed wire, then, 50 yards away, a tall wooden door three inches thick.

Dirty apple green walls and ceilings engulfed you. The heavy smell of disinfectant was everywhere. Barred cells lined halls that reached as far as you could see on the second floor. On the first floor, men were kept behind locked wooden doors, but only at night. There was constant sound, a constant shuffling as the men paced the corridors.

The uniformed psychiatric technicians -- white dress shirts, white duck pants, black bow ties -- stood distinctly apart from the inmates. The inmates wore blue - blue denim shirts, blue denim jeans, even slippers made in part of denim.

They all came together for a few hours each day, outside in the exercise yard, a rectangle of asphalt bordered on all sides by whitewashed walls, framed by gray wooden benches.

Men who might be robots walked among them in short, halting steps, staring straight ahead in silence. They were lobotomy patients, we were told, men who had raged in their cells, shouting and kicking walls, until "they cut into their brains to calm 'em down." Their faces were drained of color, and there were black circles like smears of charcoal beneath their sunken eyes.

The psychiatric technicians sat bunched together on the benches at either side of the heavy wooden door at one end of the exercise yard. Pete did most of the talking - Pete the supervising technician, a former construction company foreman in his forties, tall, blond, bull-necked, six-foot-three and well over 200 pounds.

We were not allowed to carry weapons, but Pete sold us blackjacks - leather saps filled with buckshot - that were made by a local shoe repairman.

"Only five bucks ...knock one of these animals cold with one hit!" he exclaimed.

Pete and the other non-baseball playing psychiatric technicians had no more knowledge of psychiatry than we did. They were guards, whatever their job title, put in charge of controlling the ward by administrators who made clear they preferred patients to be as docile as possible.

What little treatment psychiatrists and their aides did give seemed aimed almost entirely at keeping the inmates under control rather than curing them. There were the lobotomies, the dispensing of much medication also designed to calm, and extensive use of shock therapy, that frightening and highly questionable procedure which sends jolts of supposedly healing electricity through the brain.

Novice though I was, I was required to help administer shock treatments, pressing electrodes against the subject patients' temples and holding them down as they flailed about in great and obvious pain.

Pete and his friends happily accepted their role as enforcers, keeping the "animals" in line by treating them as prisoners rather than patients, and the hospital's administrators seemed not at all concerned that some of their employees thought it enjoyable to use a blackjack to keep inmates under control.

Blackjacks weren't all, either. Inmates whom Pete and his colleagues thought to be "out of line" were routinely whipped by two or three technicians armed with large bars of laundry soap wrapped in towels. The treatment hurt, but left few telltale bruises.

Although we weren't called on to join the enforcers with towels, and never used our blackjacks, we kept quiet about what the others were doing. We shrugged it off as standard practice that we had no right to question.

But two years later it ended, after six psychiatric technicians were formally charged with brutality on the basis of evidence provided by agents from the State Department of Justice who had posed as technicians. I never found out who they were.

Copyright Dick Meister