Reducing Costs or Occupational Therapy?

© Jane McGaughey

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Inspectors’ Memoranda notes from Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane are an extensive document where the Inspectors noted the cleanliness of the asylum and concerned themselves mainly with the cost of running the place. The Inspectors oversaw the general upkeep and ensured that costs were in line for food, supplies, repairs, and eventually expansions on Rockwood to accommodate more patients. The number of diseases that rapidly spread through patients highlighted the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions of the asylum. Common diseases ranged from erysipelas – a bacterial infection of the skin – to pneumonia. Rockwood’s Deaths and Discharge records from roughly the same time question how clean the asylum really was.

One way to slow the spread of infection was to create more space for the patients. They were routinely placed in bizarre and terrifying places. At one point, the female patients lived in the stables while new accommodations were being built. Some patients who exhibited very bad behaviour or who were “excessively filthy in their habits” were sent to ‘the Basement.’ It is unclear what occurred in ‘the Basement,’ but I can only imagine it was probably one of the most terrifying places in the world and it is most definitely haunted now.

In the Inspectors’ Memoranda, they write, “Repairs are going on. Lunatics were excavating to allow pipes to be laid from the Asylum to [the Cottage]. He hopes that gas and water pipes will both be laid at the same time.” Patients were routinely used for physical labour. Other common jobs the patients took part in were gardening, laundry duties, cooking, cleaning, stone masonry, and even the construction of new wings of the asylum. This effectively reduced building and operation costs since they did not have to hire professional workers to do the job. The construction of new wings was especially dreadful because the patients were often building their own cells.

Alternately, putting the patients to work at Rockwood can be seen as a form of Occupational Therapy. They would have something to do to keep them busy and pass their days. The patients possibly found a sense of purpose through their work. Perhaps they even enjoyed some of the tasks. Without access to patient journals or thoughts, we are relegated to understanding their work from the vantage point of the Inspector. Many of the notes related to the Memoranda revolve around the cost of running the asylum. I wonder if the patients were put to work for their own mental benefit? Or because it would cut costs? Perhaps a little of column A and a little of column B.

Almost simultaneously, as I was working with these notes, I noticed an uptick of content on my Instagram feed revolving around Prison Reformation. The spread of COVID-19 through prisons across the world became a focal point. How do you protect prisoners from an airborne disease? Additionally, the issue of prisoners being used to perform labour tasks was also made more prominent. (Activists and Scholars from BIPOC communities have been speaking about these issues for years. I suggest looking at the amazing work done by Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore to get you started.)

In the USA, the prison population is rented out to work for pennies a day. They are unprotected by laws. They are forced to work or else risk consequences. It has been called a modern-day form of slavery ( This is a very accurate descriptor of the work that prisoners are forced to carry out. Canada is not much better. The Canadian Bar Association says that “Over the years, Canada has — much like the United States — become increasingly reliant on prison labour. All the while, pay for prisoners has declined as the correctional system tries to keep costs down.” ( This ongoing contemporary dialogue has echoes in my patients at the Rockwood Asylum from the 1850s to the 1870s, many of whom were placed into the asylum directly from the nearby Kingston Penitentiary.

Since prisons and asylums grew out of the same movement of institutionalization, it is no surprise that they embodied the same practices in the 19th century. The use of “lunatics” to perform manual labour in the case of Rockwood, the conditions of the asylum itself, and the treatment of patients made the research an uncomfortable process. Somehow though, the conditions appear to be similar to prisons today. While our mental health services have been greatly expanded upon and advanced since the 1850s, the treatment of incarcerated populations by today’s society and governments needs improvement.

~ SG

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