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

By: Zoe Utley, Justin Qu

During the 1800s, prisoners "were thrown together in the most atrocious conditions" while in prison. This included men, women, and children, who would be abused, share alcohol, and spread disease to each other. As the "efficacy in legal reforms declined" so did improvements in crime rates. Early prison reformers urged that children be moved to juvenile detention centers. However there lay a larger and more controversial issue at hand: placing prisoners in solitary confinement. In 1821, eighty men that had been locked in solitary confinement in Auburn Prison suffered from severe mental illnesses and committed suicide. Solitary confinement was established through the Pennsylvania system, which believed that solitary confinement was efficient in "fostering penitence". To challenge this, Louis Dwight established the Auburn System, which took a strict approach to the prison system, along with the addition of Sabbath School to teach salvation to inmates. Dwight, along with Dorethea Dix, who had previously visited many asylums and prisons, fought for prison libraries to provide education to prisoners, reduction in prisoner abuse for punishment, commutation of sentences, and the separation of women, children, and the ill. These reforms led to America establishing a new model for prisons throughout the world. Solitary confinement is still a controversial issue in the U.S. today because the U.S. holds 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement, more than any other country.

Primary source: (Dorothy Dix) I admit that public peace and security are seriously endangered by the non-restraint of the maniacal insane. I consider it in the highest degree improper that they should be allowed to range the towns and country without care or guidance; but this does not justify the public in any State or community, under any circumstances or conditions, in committing the insane to prisons; in a majority of cases the rich may be, or are sent to Hospitals; the poor under the pressure of this calamity, have the same just claim upon the public treasury, as the rich have upon the private purse of their family as they have the need, so have they the right to share the benefits of Hospital treatment. Urgent cases at all times, demand, unusual and ready expenditures in every community.

If County Jails must be resorted to for security against the dangerous propensities of madmen, let such use of prison-rooms and dungeons be but temporary. It is not long since I noticed in a Newspaper, published near the borders or this State, the following paragraph: “It is our fate,” writes the Editor, “to be located opposite the County Jail, in which are now confined four miserable creatures bereft of the God-like attribute of reason: two of them females; and our feelings are daily excited by sounds of woe, that would harrow up the hardest soul. It is horrible that for the sake of a few thousand dollars the wailings of the wretched should be suffered to issue from the gloomy walls of our jails without pity and without relief. Were our law-makers doomed to listen for a single hour each day to the clanking of chains, and the piercing shrieks of these forlorn wretches, relief would surely follow, and the character of our State would be rescued from the foul blot that now dishonors it.” In nearly every jail in North Carolina, have the insane at different times, and in periods varying in duration, been grievous sufferers. In Halifax County, several years since, a maniac was confined in the jail; shut in the dungeon, and chained there. The jail was set on fire by other prisoners: the keeper, as he told me, heard frantic shrieks and cries of the madman, and “might have saved him as well as not, but his noise was a common thing he was used to it, and thought nothing out of the way was the case.” The alarm of fire was finally spread; the jailer hastened to the prison: it was now too late; every effort, (and no exertions were spared,) to save the agonized creature, was unavailing. He perished in agony, and amidst tortures no pen can describe.…

Louis Dwight and Dorthea Dix were just two of  many people who pushed for reforms. The Auburn plan was very widely accepted in part because it was cheaper that the Pennsylvania plan and could house more prisoners. With the advocacy of Louis Dwight, the Auburn plan was used into the 20th century.

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