Prison Reform of the U.S. (1830s-1850s)

The Prison Reform was a result of the Second Great Awakening. It came during the 1830's to the 1850's with a series of other reforms aimed at improving the common man and society as a whole. Specifically, the Prison Reform sought to soften punishments. This would allow criminals to learn from their mistakes and correct their wrong-doing. The Prison Reform was the origin of modern American jail system, and lead to the "solitary confinement" punishment. This movement introduced the revolutionary idea that it was the responsibility of society, not just the individual, to reform criminals and to address vices like alcoholism.

This image shows a tranquilizing chair, one of the many torture devices used to torture those convicted of insanity. Dorothea Dix and many others fought for creation of separate mental institutions for the mentally ill, rather than throwing them in prison and subjecting them to torture.

Dorothea Dix was one of the most prominent prison and mental health reformers in the nineteenth century. Reformists like Dix pushed for improved facilities and separation of mentally ill patients from hardened criminals. Many, if not all, of Dix's reforms can be seen in the modern American jailing system.

The Prison Reform was a movement inspired the Second Great Awakening and came in close succession with other reform movements like Women's Rights and Insane Asylums. A major cause of the prison reform was the over-abundance of imprisoned debtors. Immediately following this movement, the prisons were less crowded because of the elimination of debtor imprisonment. The Prison Reforms also led to the creation of  the Auburn System, which is still used today. The most prominent proponent in the Prison Reform was Dorothea Dix, who fought for better prison conditions, separation of children and adult criminals, and the creation of mental health institutes for the insane.

Primary Source:

Dorothea Dix Submits a Report to the Legislature

About two years since leisure afforded opportunity, and duty prompted me to visit several
prisons and alms-houses in the vicinity of this metropolis. I found, near Boston, in the
Jails and Asylums for the poor, a numerous class brought into unsuitable connexion with
criminals and the general mass of Paupers. I refer to Idiots and Insane persons, dwelling
in circumstances not only adverse to their own physical and moral improvement, but
productive of extreme disadvantages to all other persons brought into association with
them... I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of the
miserable, the desolate, the outcast. I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane
and idiotic men and women; of beings, sunk to a condition from which the most
unconcerned would start with real horror; of beings wretched in our Prisons, and more
wretched in our Alms-Houses ... The condition of human beings, reduced to the
extremest states of degradation and misery, cannot be exhibited in softened language, or
adorn a polished page ... It is the Commonwealth, not its integral parts, that is
accountable for most of the abuses which have lately, and do still exist. I repeat it, it is
defective legislation which perpetuates and multiplies these abuses ... Men of
Massachusetts, I beg, I implore, I demand, pity and protection, for these of my suffering,
outraged sex!—Fathers, Husbands, Brothers, I would supplicate you for this boon—but
what do I say? I dishonor you, divest you at once of Christianity and humanity—does this
appeal imply distrust.”


While touring prisons for two years, Dix made a detailed record of what she saw in the
prisons. After compiling these sitings, she submitted them to the legislature, hoping for
better conditions for criminals and the mentally ill. In time, she would move on to New
Jersey, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Lousiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and
Arkansas in an effort to reform prisons across the country.

Linking back to a prior time period:

In colonial America, punishments were severe. The Massachusetts assembly in 1736 ordered that a thief, on first conviction, be fined or whipped. Pennsylvania eliminated the death penalty for robbery and burglary in 1786, and in 1794 retained it only for first degree murder. These relate to the prison reforms because it is the first step toward reducing the punishments on criminals.

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