Few human beings are subject to as much misunderstanding, cruelty, and neglect as the mentally ill and mentally retarded. People with mental disabilities are often abandoned or hidden away in public institutions, which are grossly overcrowded and unsanitary, and which offer little in the way of medical care or training. The developmentally disabled are mixed with the mentally ill, young with the old, unhealthy with the healthy. Deprived of medical and dental care, proper nutrition, education, and counseling, the mentally disabled have little chance of living productively and safely within these institutions, and little opportunity of ever leaving.
Working as a volunteer for a human rights organization I traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay, with the intention of gaining entry into the Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, the country’s single public psychiatric facility. This frighteningly substandard institution warehouses 460 patients, a great many of them ‘abandonados,’ people placed there because they have absolutely nowhere else to go. I photographed patients living out their lives in filthy dormitories, sleeping on bare mattresses, utilizing open, dirty toilets, bathing in ice-cold water. Among the patients being supervised by what can only be called a sub-custodial level of staff were two teenaged boys who’d been held for six years in tiny, unlit, cage-like cells. This 12-image selection, part of a personal, long-term project, received first place in the Issue Reporting Picture Story category at this year’s POYi.