Prison and Asylum Reform

Dorothea Dix started a controversy when she spoke at the Massachusetts Legislature on the intolerable conditions in hospitals for the mentally ill. She claimed “the sick and insane were confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! “She started her crusade for humane hospitals for the insane in 1841. She gathered evidence and she called for state-supported care. As a result, five hospitals were established in America.

When Dr. John Galt took over as the superintendent at Eastern Lunatic Asylum, the first Psychiatric Hospital in America, he had many revolutionary ideas about treating the insane. He talked about the use of drugs, the introduction of talk therapy and advocating outplacement rather than lifelong stays.

In addition to problems in asylums, prisons were overflowing with people for every offense from murder to spitting on the street. Men, women and the children were all thrown together in these prisons. After the 1812 War, reformers from Boston and New York began a crusade to remove children from jails to Juvenile Detention Centers.

Was prison for punishment or penitence? In 1821, many of the eighty men at Auburn Prison committed suicide or had mental breakdowns after being locked in solitary; forcing the governor to pardon hardened criminals. Auburn reverted to a strict disciplinary approach.

Louis Dwight was the first national figure in prison reform. He founded the Boston Prison Discipline Society, and spread the Auburn system throughout America’s jails and added salvation and Sabbath school to further penitence.

More reforms were on the way. Francis Lieber, Samuel Gridley Howe and the peerless Dix wanted prison libraries, basic literacy for Bible reading, reduction of whipping and beating, commutation of sentences, and separation of women, children and the sick.

By 1835, America was considered to have two of the “best” prisons in the world in Pennsylvania. Advocates for prisoners thought they could deviants could change. It was a new idea that society and not individuals had the responsibility for criminal activity. It later became clear the prisoners were no better off and often worse despite the interventions by outsiders.

Source: Prison and Asylum Reform
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