Prison and Asylum Reform

The 19th Century Movement to Improve Correctional Facilities

The State of Prisons in the 19th Centurty

  • Prison conditions before the reform were horrid and inhumane
  • There was no separation based on age, gender, or crime
  • The mentally ill were seen as beasts and were beaten and whipped
  • Prisons were overcrowded and almshouses (shelters for the poor) were not in good condition
  • People were put in jail for debts and then had no way to earn money to pay the debts

The Reformers Who Fought For Change

Dorothea Dix

  • Dorothea Dix was major leader in the reform movement
  • She went to many prisons and asylums and recorded the horrid conditions
  • She used her findings to influence MA legislature and get them to improve conditions
  • She was succesful in MA and went on to petition to other states and even the Queen of England and the Pope
  • She founded the idea that the insane were mentally ill not just purposefully weird

Quote from Dorothea Dix's speech to Massachusetts 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 proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!"
Dorthea Dix and Prison Reform in the U.S.

Dr. John Galt

  • Dr. Galt founded the first psychiatric hospital in America
  • Believed the mentally ill should be treated differently and kept separate from other prisoners
  • He created "Talk Therapy" and started treating patients with drugs instead of restraining them
  • Spoke out against life-long sentences for prisoners

Other Reformers

The Auburn System

  • The Auburn System was a new prison system created during the reform movement that had prisoners work during the day
  • This was an improvement on the Pennsylvania System which kept prisoners in solitary at all times
  • This helped improve discipline in prisons without as many mental breakdowns and suicides from prisoners that came with the constant solitary confinement of the Pennsylvania System
  • The Auburn System promoted rehabilitation by teaching prisoners discipline and respect

Songs on Prison Reform

While this song is pretty poor musically it does provide good information about the movement.
Antebellum Prison Reform Music Video
This song gives a good visual representation of prison life in the 19th century
Robin Hood - Not in Nottingham

Results of Prison Reform Movement

  • Improved conditions in prisons and created separation
  • Spread the idea that the mentally ill needed help and therapy, not beatings and inhumane treatment
  • Laws were passed banning most debt based imprisonment
  • Changed the idea of prisons, they were not just for punishment but also for rehabilitation
  • Created the movement that is still going on today to make prisons as humane as possible and to give prisoners the best opportunity to return to society


Works Cited

Kennedy, David M. The American Pageant: Ap Version. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

"Prison and Asylum Reform." Reform Movements. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

"Prison and Asylum Reform." Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

"Prison and Mental Illness Reform." Slaternhs-apush -. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

"Reform Crusades - AP U.S. History Topic Outlines - Study Notes." Reform Crusades - AP U.S. History Topic Outlines - Study Notes. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.