Prison Reforms of the U.S.


The Prison Reforms

   Before the reforms in U.S. Prisons, the living conditions were horrible. The prisoners were confined in large rooms with several prisoners and given alcohol, resulting in many riots and successful prison escapes. New York then devised a system called the Auburn system where prisoners were confined to separate cells and forbidden to talk. Cruel treatment and overcrowding of prisoners became a problem so the government started looking for solutions. They looked at who was in prison and for what crime. They decided to help with the overpopulation in prisons by letting debtors go and closing debtors' prisons because even though some of the people there were thousands of dollars in debt, some of the debtors only owed a few dollars.  As for the cruel treatment of prisoners, the government thought that it was useless so they turned prisons into reformatories for criminals.  This would forever strengthen the trust that society gives towards free convicts, now knowing that they didn't just rot in prison and "plan their revenge" but that they are, hopefully, changed people that are more fit for society.

Prisons Before Reforms

There was much chaos in prisons before the reforms. This illustration depicts the mayhem that, in some cases, turned into riots.  

Prisons After Reforms

The unified inmate workforce helped to get manual labor done to help contribute the rest of society and it also helped to refine the prisoners to they were more socially acceptable when they were released. Image from:

Dorothea Dix's "I Tell What I Have Seen"- Reports of Asylum and Prison Reformer Dorothea Dix

“I Tell What I Have Seen”—The Reports of Asylum Reformer Dorothea Dix



I respectfully ask to present this Memorial, believing that the cause, which . . . sanctions so unusual a movement, presents no equivocal claim to public consideration and sympathy. Surrendering to calm and deep convictions of duty my habitual views of what is womanly and becoming, I proceed briefly to explain what has conducted me before you unsolicited and unsustained, trusting, while I do so, that the memorialist will be speedily forgotten in the memorial.

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 applied myself diligently to trace the causes of these evils, and sought to supply remedies. As one obstacle was surmounted, fresh difficulties appeared. Every new investigation has been depth to the conviction that it is only by decided, prompt, and vigorous legislation the evils to which I refer, and which I shall proceed more fully to illustrate, can be remedied. I shall be obliged to speak with great plainness, and to reveal many things revolting to the taste, and from which my woman’s nature shrinks with peculiar sensitiveness. But truth is the highest consideration. I tell what I have seen—painful and as shocking as the details often are—that from them you may feel more deeply the imperative obligation which lies upon you to prevent the possibility of a repetition or continuance of such outrages upon humanity. If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with suffering which you have the power to alleviate, and make you hasten to the relief of the victims of legalized barbarity.

I come to present the strong claims of suffering humanity. 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. And I cannot suppose it needful to employ earnest persuasion, or stubborn argument, in order to arrest and fix attention upon a subject, only the more strongly pressing in its claims, because it is revolting and disgusting in its details.

Found at:

This is a section of a report written by Dorothea Dix, explaining the immediate need for prison and asylum reforms because of the unbearable living conditions. In the rest of this article she very specifically states every prison/ asylum she's been to and makes sure to state every detail and example of what she sees.  The reason she feels so passionately about the proper care of inmates is because when she was little, she had to run away from home to live with her grandmother because she was abused as a child and didn't want any more abuse happening to the inmates.

Report Explanation

More Information

The prison reforms in America have always been up and down since the start of American prisons.  The cruelty and overpopulation had always been a problem but wasn't formally addressed and permanently established in the U.S. until around the 1840's.  The reason why it was a permanent reform was because the U.S. weren't the only ones to change their system, in fact, most of Europe was changing their systems of imprisonment so if a country was to revert back to their old ways, another country could easily call them out for it.

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