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I'm trying to make a place that is a part of a nation but not under its government's rule, specifically a mental institution. It has dark secrets within its walls.
I want to write a mystery story which contains lots of dark themes, and a detective needed to find out the mystery behind it without the help of the government.

However, I'm not sure how I can keep the mental institution running if it's violating the laws of the government.

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    $\begingroup$ All it needs is to be able to have "protection" by the local authorities. That is how organized crime exists in some towns - the local authorities have been bribed. Be warned though. Anything that is not under the control of some government will be militarily attacked at some point to bring it under government control. And if the local government is not controlling the actions, at some point, the local government will be attacked by a larger state (see the Spanish Armada attacking England for protecting pirates). $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Ask Portland about CHAZ. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need much to have people turn a blind eye to atrocities happening in mental institutions. Our history is full of that (although I'm not sure if that was legal, illegal or legal grey area - probably a mix). Our present is probably also full of that. Our history is also full of a whole lot of really bad people and places that the government didn't do all that much about for a really long time due to a lack of knowledge or a lack of sufficient evidence to take any legal steps. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ Point of order, @TonyEnnis, CHAZ/CHOP was in Seattle. If you're suggesting that as a real-world example OP can look into, please have your facts straight. $\endgroup$
    – srrahmork
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ How could violating the laws of the government matter if the institution was not under its government's rule. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 21:41

10 Answers 10

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Exceptional Politics

Related to sovereignty and treaties:

  • The United Nations. The 1947 treaty for the New York headquarters states:

“Federal, state or local officers or officials of the United States, whether administrative, judicial, military or police, shall not enter the headquarters district to perform any official duties therein except with the consent of and under conditions agreed to by the Secretary-General.” (Section 9).

  • Embassies and consulates are regular buildings but are commonly excluded from the jurisdiction of the local government.
  • Gambling regulations can be circumvented by locating a casino on Native American reservations or on boats.
  • Bir Tawil is claimed by neither Egypt nor Sudan.
  • Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, known for being run by organized crime in practice, but the situation was created by relations between China and the UK.

Related to administrative districts:

  • Special police jurisdictions exist for universities, railroads, fairgrounds, parks, etc.
  • An administrative error in defining boundaries. In 2015, the Business Loop 70 Community Improvement District tried to define its boundaries to include only commercial properties, but mistakenly included a few voters.
  • Protest zones, shanty towns, communes, and similar loosely organized areas, the inhabitants of which may prefer self-government and be hostile to outsiders.

Unusual cities:

Anomalies:

  • Inholding. Privately owned long before the government decided to designate the area as e.g. a National Park.
  • The Berkeley Free Speech Monument is a small patch of dirt surrounded by the inscription:

“This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you missed the other obvious example: Vatican City. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ @fectin I omitted Vatican City because it’s sovereign, or else many other city-states would deserve mention. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ The UN one is a huge problem for NYC parking enforcement. All the UN vehicles park wherever they want and ignore all the tickets, and they can’t be enforced. It’s a problem. $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ @KRyan my heart bleeds, since US officials at the US embassy in London do exactly the same there... $\endgroup$
    – Moo
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Skrrp there seems to be too many examples of informally governed areas, so I added a general bullet instead. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 2:58
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Just make it a religious institute. There are plenty of examples in real life that "what happens in a religious institute stays in the religious institute", not even mentioning that in the past churches were granted the privilege of being extra territorial places.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 ...and not even mentioning the Vatican, a place that retains such privilege today. $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Qami, the Vatican is technically a country. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ Athos is a better example, located within an officially democratic country. $\endgroup$
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ The Vatican is a distinct territory under "full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction" of the Holy See, itself a sovereign entity of international law. $\endgroup$
    – mcalex
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 6:42
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Exclave

Kaliningrad oblast

An exclave is a spot which is officially a part of a country with which it is not contiguous. Kaliningrad is an example that has been in the news lately. It is a little piece of Russia surrounded by Poland and Lithuania. Life there depends on the relationship between those countries and Russia.

Your mental hospital is in an exclave. For historical reasons it is part of a different, powerful but fairly distant country. The borders of the exclave are formally international borders though perhaps more is made of this for some than for others.

I envision your exclave as even smaller than Kaliningrad. They are governed by their own laws and by those of the distant parent country. The national law enforcement of that parent country does not often come to the exclave to make sure things are in order.

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    $\begingroup$ Also Ceuta, Mellila, Vatican City, Campione, and many more. It is not as uncommon as people might assume. $\endgroup$
    – Aganju
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ There's also distant islands that may be part of a territory but mostly utilized as military bases. Manpower may be very low and corruption could be high. Such small towns may have the leader/staff of the institution married to, say, the governor. $\endgroup$
    – Muz
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 6:27
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A functioning state means there is a government to exercise sovereignty over the territory. There area legal system and police who claim a monopoly on legitimate violence. The flip side of this monopoly is that they must exercise it on behalf of citizens who have been wronged.

But a democracy also respects the rights of their citizens, including privacy. The only time I've seen on-duty police in my home was when I reported a bicycle theft from my back yard. They don't drop in for random checks where I live ...

This principle can become turning a blind eye, as when the Catholic Church got away with investigating and obfuscsating sexual abuse by themselves. Or when various churches decided to offer sanctuary to refugees who were to be deported. What these cases have in common is that the government refrained from enforcing laws for fear of public backlash. The church has a good reputation with people who normally back the state institutions, and so the government agencies simply find other crimes to investigate before they open that file.

A different mechanism applies when there are people who normally hate the state institutions, and if the government agencies decide to pick their fights carefully. Some time ago, in Berlin, squatters were evicted from an occupied building. The police deployed roughly 30 officers per squatter, because they expected violent protests by part of the community. This action was planned and authorized by senior police and political leaders with a significant lead time, while a normal eviction involves one bailiff, perhaps one patrol car, and possibly a few hired movers. A critic might say that the squatters got away with defying court orders far longer than an ordinary eviction case, because of government fear.

Your mental institution would probably use the first option.

  • Assume strong protections for patient confidentiality, with fearsome lawyers to back it up.
  • Assume that powerful people were able to have inconvenient relatives declared insane and admitted, either to keep them out of a jail or to keep them from exposing a scandal. Now the doctors have phone numbers on quick-dial.
  • Assume that the general public is familiar with people making "wild" claims every decade or so, and the "whistleblowers" being declared insane by the medical expert witnesses and the legal system.
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I would suggest a very remote location. Perhaps somewhere in a very high mountainous area with a very high pass on the border between two countries that used to be of strategic importance. Perhaps a large fortress was built there and extended and enlarged over the years.

Then eventually a better route was found through the mountains - a tunnel perhaps or maybe tensions eased between the two countries border or a huge landslide made access to the fortress very difficult or allowed a different route further away.

The fortress fell into disuse for sometime but eventually was taken over by monks and then in the fullness of time became a mental institution. The remoteness makes control and oversight difficult from central government so the institution is left alone. It is also in a semi-autonomous / demilitarized border region making it even less easy for government oversight.

Technically any oversight is via a commission set up for the semi-autonomous border region, but that has been under funded and only really exists on paper. So there is no effective oversight and nobody lives anywhere near it. It has a front that shows it's an austere but well run institution. Government is lax and only too happy to keep the status quo and also get rid of some very troublesome mental patients.

The few comments or complaints that do arise are directed to the semi-autonomous border regions joint administrators (for all the good that will do anyone).

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    $\begingroup$ Governnment resources aren't infinite. Even if money isn't an issue, time and manpower is. So by going somewhere remote, hard to reach, etc., a government could just consider it "too much of a hassle" to really deal with you. While they will consider you "part of their influence", in reality, no one will really bother. $\endgroup$
    – MechMK1
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ True - they would be directed to speak to the relevant body of the joint administrators of the semi-autonomous border region. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 23:02
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This has happened before. The first example that springs to mind is Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1994). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City

Hong Kong simply left it to run itself as it would have been very costly in both lives and money to properly control.

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There are quite a few examples of real-world autonomies to a different degree, sometimes for quite a while (e.g. centuries):

  • Universities
  • Temples
  • Monasteries
  • Ghettos
  • Crime gangs
  • combinations thereof (all of these can go together)

The stability criteria is some combination of:

  • Means of existence (e.g. a steady stream of trade, goods, services, etc)
  • Strong support from the locals, another government or some other strong enough factor
  • Not being enough pain for the local government so it doesn't try to fix the situation
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    $\begingroup$ It was always fun in Cambridge watching police politely stop at the porters' lodge and ask if the porters would bring a student out of the college so they could arrest him. $\endgroup$
    – Dan W
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 12:18
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It's in an area claimed by no state, like Bir Tawil. Bir Tawil is an area that is, due to funky border disputes, claimed by neither Egypt nor Sudan (in fact, they each claim the other country owns it). Real life is sometimes weirder than fiction.

There aren't many other real life examples of this, but a few exist, see terra nullius.

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There's still a few unclaimed areas in the world. In particular, there is an area called Liberland / Gornja Siga between Serbia and Croatia that both countries disavow owning. They both want to claim a bigger piece next to it and there is some history meaning that one nation has to get one piece and the other nation gets the other; they both claim the big piece and reject the small one, which is Liberland.

In practice, no one can get in and out because the Croatian military keeps it ringed with troops, but it wouldn't be hard for an author to imagine Croatia allowing an asylum there and then pretending it doesn't exist.

There are a few other debated terra nullius's around but mostly in the third world, and I assume your setting is in a developed country.

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Apartheid

There exists a race or class of people who are legally considered lower-class citizens in this country.

The institution was built, and the doctors hired some time ago by a well-meaning wealthy philanthropist, in order to treat the mental health of people from this group. However, over time the philanthropist either lost interest, died, found out it was more difficult than they anticipated and lost control of the place. The place is now run entirely by people from this lower class, and due to government neglect, the area in which it was built has fallen to ruin. But it's the only hospital that will treat these people.

Them not being considered full legal citizens of the country, the government feels no obligation (or indeed might have convinced themselves they don't even have the right) to get involved in the running of the place. But the people who are supposed to be in charge - because they have not been allowed to have a proper education - can do little more than make sure the place stays in service, or are perhaps corrupt themselves.

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