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 that the patients were confined in cages or closets. She started her crusade for humane mental hospitals in 1841. She gathered evidence and she called for state-supported care. As a result, five mental hospitals were established in America.

When Dr. John Galt took over as the superintendent at the first psychiatric hospital in America, he had many revolutionary ideas about treating mental illness. He talked about the use of drugs and the introduction of talk therapy. He advocated 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 children were 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 confinement. The governor finally pardoned 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.

More reforms were on the way. Francis Lieber, Samuel Gridley Howe and Dix pushed for 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. Advocates for prisoners thought the inmates could change. It was a new idea that society, rather than individuals, had the responsibility for criminal activity. It later became clear the prisoners were no better off and often worse despite the interventions on their behalf.

Source: Prison and Asylum Reform
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