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

        ​In 1835, the House of Lord's Committee set a series of reports for goals of government corporations. This included improving the prison system with a draft of the Prison's Act 1835. They wanted to do things such as making it a place to teach discipline and order to prisoners, forms of solitary confident, and overall providing a place of transformation to mentally and physically in the penitentiary systems. They even had name changes such as "correctional facilities" and "reformatories"  But problems worsened with prisoners fighting wardens back, and many had nervous breakdowns and committed suicide.

          ​Leaders of this generation came about and wanted more change in the prison systems. Samuel Gridley Howe, for example, had goals of libraries, teaching literacy, stop beating and whipping, and disallow separation among women, children, and sick.

It consisted of two new systems to improve the prisons:

Auborn- Began in Auborn, New York in 1821. Inmates had individual sleeping cells and silently worked in shops everyday. Specifically focused on teaching discipline.

Pennsylvania- "Cherry Hill Penitentiary" and "Eastern State Penitentiary" in 1829. Used solitary confinement instead of work for enforcement. Had no visitors or mail. Some cells had toilets that flushed, proper sanitation, and central heating. Over all very influential.


  This political cartoon shows how overcrowded prisons were. By showing all these prisoners barely fitting into a large barrel the reader can conclude that these prisons were small and overcrowded.

This is how convicts exercised in Pentonville Prison. In this image it appears that these prisoners are walking with masks on and they are all holding on to a rope. This was supposed to be their exercise. The reader can then conclude that they didn't get much exercise if they had to work in a line of prisoners all holding onto the same rope. Thus Prison Reformers wanted a change so that these prisoners would be able to excercise how they wanted to.

Primary Source   

LETTER OF ELIZABETH FRY TO SARAH SMITH, ON PRISON REFORM


"8/15/1829

My dear friend.

I arrived safely at home last 3d day and found my dear family as well as usual but my poor husband still in a low state and certainly events as we have passed through are very very shaking as to this life. (6) I feel the weight of the cloud upon my return after being a little diverted from it by the interesting objects of our journey.

I think that I engaged to give some little hinds of my view of the state of your debt prison therefore I will endeavour to do it.

In the first place I consider the want of the separation of the sexes the most crying evil and a must unjustifiable exposure of the morals of both parties and that something should be done at once to remedy it at least the womens room should be locked up at night and they should have a bell that they could ring if they want anything in the night - I think they should certainly be allowed firing as well as bread which is after all a scanty allowance for them. There should be a divine service at least once a week and a suitable place for it as it is wrong and hard that prisoners for debt should be excluded the privilege of attending a place of worship. Thus far I think that the gentleman whose place it is should be induced to have these things attended to - then I see that much may be done by benevolent ladies or gentlemen frequently visiting these poor creatures reading to them instructing them giving them books (as he has already done) and endeavouring to induce the poor prisoners to make such use of their times as may prove a blessing to them in after life also some attention might at times be paid to their families. I do not know that I have more to say upon the subject except to express my desire that a few of my dear friends at Sheffield may be induced to visit these poor persons because I do believe they would find it do good and very likely be blessed to many.

I remember with gratitude thy great kindness to me also C-T's (7) attention. After all I have passed through I feel the kindness and love of my dear friends a great cordial to me -

I could send my love to may at Sheffield but particularly wish to have it given to Mary Hargrave.

My kind remembrances to the Harrisons - and believe me with feeling of much love to thee and thy companion

thy Obliged friend,

Elizabeth Fry. "

         In this letter from Elizabeth Fry to Sarah Smith Fry tells Sarah about her views on  debtor prisons. She tells Sarah that Prisons should have "separation of sexes."  Fry says that in these prisons horrible things happen to women at night. She then goes on describing the prison and the people in the prison. In the end she then states that "that something should be done at once" to fix out penal system.


        The cause of the Prison Reforms were because of unsatisfactory conditions in prisons as well as Humanitarian Reformers such as Dorothea Dix, Francis Lieber, Samuel Gridley Howe whose goals were to have prison libraries, basic literacy, and a reduction of whippings, beatings, as well as separation of women, children, and the sick within prisons.  

         The effect of these reforms were that by 1835, America was considered to have two of the "best" prisons in the world.

        In reality it became clear that even with the hard work of these reformers and the help of outsiders, prisoners were often no better off, and often worse off, for their incarceration.

       Yet these Humanitarian reformers has only begun a crusade to alleviate the human suffering that continues today.

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