Ricky Wyatt, 57, Dies; Plaintiff in Landmark Mental Care Suit
BY DOUGLAS MARTIN
FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES
PHOTO : RICKY WYATT AT HIS MOTHER’S HOME IN COTTONDALE, ALA. 2003Porfirio Solorzano/Tuscaloosa News.
Ricky Wyatt was a rambunctious Alabama teenager who had broken windows, overturned a school desk or two, and been in and out of group homes. His probation officer decided he needed to be committed to a mental institution. His aunt, his legal guardian, agreed.
So Ricky found himself at 14 in a crowded and understaffed hell, the Bryce State Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Among more than 5,000 patients, he was the youngest by a decade. Though he was never found to have any illness, he was given large doses of Thorazine and other psychoactive drugs regularly.
Mr. Wyatt, who died on Tuesday at 57, became the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action federal lawsuit protesting conditions in the hospital. The suit led to a judgment in 1971 that gave the federal government control of Alabama’s mental institutions and set national guidelines for mental care that came to be called the Wyatt Standards.
“The enormity of what this case accomplished cannot be overstated,” Judge Myron Thompson of Federal District Court in Montgomery, Ala., said when he returned Alabama’s mental health system to state control in 2003. “The principles of humane treatment of people with mental illness and mental retardation embodied in this litigation have become part of the fabric of law in this country and, indeed, international law.”
James Tucker, the legal director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said Mr. Wyatt had died in a Tuscaloosa hospital. He did not know the cause, he said.
Ricky J. Wyatt was born in Tuscaloosa in 1954 and reared by his great-grandmother because his mother, Sylvia Hunter, “got in trouble,” he said in 2009 in an interview with Listen, an Alabama Department of Mental Health newsletter. Sylvia Hunter was in prison for forgery when the landmark suit was filed on his behalf, she told The Decatur Daily, an Alabama newspaper.
Ricky described himself as a “hell-raiser” who had been sent to reform school. While he was living at a children’s home, he said, his probation officer decided he needed to be committed to Bryce and his aunt, Mildred Rawlins, beset with problems of her own, agreed.
Paul Davis, a journalist who covered the case, wrote in Law and Psychology Review in January this year that Alabama law had made it easy to put people in mental institutions at the time. “If Aunt Bessie regularly burned the biscuits, or if Grandma Smith said the same things over and over again, a relative could simply go to a doctor and tell him their kin needed to go to the mental hospital,” he said. In a sense, Ricky was coming home when he was committed to Bryce. He counted 56 relatives who had worked there, starting with his great-great-grandfather. Mildred Rawlins worked there. Ricky played there as a child.
Being a patient was different. Ricky, 15 at the time of the trial, testified that he had been made to sleep on wet floors and locked in a cell-like room. He told of supervisors making people fight so they could bet on the winners. He was awakened by being poked with a broom. Hot water was thrown on him, he said. He was placed in a rehabilitation program for drugs and alcohol, though he had used neither.
“The worst thing was that I knew there was nothing wrong with me,” he told Listen.
The lawsuit began after the hospital laid off workers, leaving only one nurse for every 250 patients. Workers, including his aunt, decided to file a class-action suit and asked Ricky to be its human face.
Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., who had earlier ordered that Alabama’s schools and prisons be placed under federal control on civil rights grounds, heard the case. He threw out the issue of the layoffs, saying the state had the right to hire and fire. But he let the claim of patient mistreatment go forward.
Judge Johnson’s ruling required humane treatment of patients, sufficient staffing, individualized treatment plans and as little reduction in patient freedom as practicable. It set 35 specific standards in areas like diet and nutrition.
Mr. Wyatt’s survivors include his mother; his sister, Kathy King; and his brother, Ronnie.
After the case, Mr. Wyatt found jobs in Florida and other states. He fell from a ladder while working as a painter and afterward used a walker or a wheelchair. He lived his last years in a trailer next door to his mother’s house in Cottondale, Ala.
When federal control of Alabama’s mental health programs ended on Dec. 5, 2003, there were 1,500 patients in state institutions, compared with more than 10,000 when it began. The next day, Mr. Wyatt visited Bryce. “It changed so much I couldn’t believe it,” he said.