This summer, a group of Bushwick teenagers weaseled their way into Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center armed with microphones and cameras. Their mission: to find out if the hospital lived up to its neighborhood nickname of “Killerhull.”
“Inspired by rumors and negative stories about Woodhull hospital, we decided to investigate for ourselves,” says 15-year-old Elizabeth DeJesus. Earlier this year, City Limits reporter Kevin Heldman spent a week undercover in the hospital, documenting poor conditions and neglect in the psychiatric ward. The city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates Woodhull, had refused to comment to Heldman. The kids’ project was inspired, in part, by his story.
The teens spent 10 hours interviewing hospital employees and patients, editing their tape into a 20-minute documentary that they hope to air on WBAI-FM. By claiming to work for National Public Radio, the group also got an interview with K. Candis Best, associate executive director of business affairs at Woodhull. When asked about the Heldman story, she replied, “[W]e will not dignify that story by commenting on it directly.”
Two boys also snuck back into the hospital later with disposable cameras and photographed grimy bathroom floors littered with beer bottles.
But DeJesus and the others, who had summer jobs with the Williamsburg community group El Puente, found conditions weren’t quite as bad as they’d expected. One student, Jonathan Vidal, says his mother gave birth to his sister in a Woodhull hallway; another, Jose Carrera, jokes, “Before doing this documentary I thought that nobody came out of there alive.”
“The kids expected that 95 percent of interviewees would have something negative to say,” says Robin Friedman, one of the teachers who supervised the project for the Bushwick housing organization Make the Road By Walking. Instead they heard mixed reviews of the hospital. Says DeJesus, “Now when I walk by Woodhull hospital, I don’t see everything as black and white. I see that it’s more complicated than it seems.”