The history of addiction recovery in America is fascinating and disturbing, from barbaric, draconian “treatments” to sanitariums to the upscale, evidence-based centers of today. While we have come a long way over the centuries, there is still a long way to go in the fight against stigma.
Many men and women working a program of addiction recovery today find themselves with a plethora of downtime. Sheltering in place, stay at home orders, and staggering unemployment has led to the new normal we are facing. Those in the fellowship might use this opportunity to learn more about the history of recovery.
How society went from viewing addiction as a crime to accepting that behavioral health disorders are treatable diseases is a remarkable story. Progress has been hard-fought and is a never-ending quest. Learning about the struggle of those who came before us might help you find the courage to continue your journey during these challenging times.
Not far from where the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson or Bill W., lost everything on Wall St. in 1929, sits a small island with a storied past. Located at the western end of Long Island Sound in the Bronx Borough of New York City, New York, you will find Hart Island. Largely unknown by NYC residents, Hart Island is perhaps better described as the “Island of the Dead.”
The tiny island has a dark past, and if you were struggling with alcohol in the 1950s, you might have called it home for a stint. What’s more, you might have found yourself residing there between 1967 and 1977 if you had a substance use disorder.
Prison, Psychiatric Hospital, Addiction Treatment, and Potter’s Field
It would probably take 20 posts to cover the entire, multi-hatted history of the little member of the Pelham Islands archipelago. Beneath the topsoil rests more than a million souls and growing, according to The Hart Island Project. NYC officials authorized the mass burial of some COVID-19 pandemic victims; such was the case in 1870 during yellow fever and the 1980’s AIDS epidemic.
Hart Island has had many public uses over the centuries, beginning in 1864 with training the 31st Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, according to the New York Correction History Society. Confederate troops were imprisoned there during the war as well. During the same time, the burials of impoverished New Yorkers and Union soldiers became a practice.
While the incarceration (precursor of Rikers Island) and mass burials (replacement of potter’s fields now known as Washington Square Park and New York Public Library in Manhattan) were the most common uses of Hart Island, it also played a role in the history of mental health and addiction treatment. In 1885, The Pavilion, a psychiatric hospital for women, was built.
The New York Daily News reported that from 1951 to 1954, the homeless and alcoholics were housed on the island. In 1955, some twenty years after Alcoholics Anonymous’ inception, the Department of Correction opened an alcoholism treatment center on Hart Island. A year later, those being treated might have looked out the window and seen Nike Ajax missiles; it was the height of the Cold War after all.
Following the island prison closure in 1966, six heroin addicts who met in detox proposed creating a drug addiction treatment center on Hart Island—The Phoenix House, The New York Times reports. A year later, it opened and operated for a decade, moving back to the mainland. The organization – still in operation today – became an alternative to prison for addicts. The model is even replicated in prisons throughout the U.S. today.
Please take a moment to watch a short video about Hart Island:
If you are having trouble watching, please click here.
Chemical Dependency Recovery Hospital
We hoped you enjoyed a glimpse of the history of addiction treatment in America. We hope it will inspire you to learn more. If you are struggling with drugs, alcohol, or co-occurring mental illness, please contact Hemet Valley Recovery Center to learn more about our programs. HVRC is a Chemical Dependency Recovery Hospital, which allows us to provide our clients access to more than 100 physicians who specialize in a full spectrum of fields.