Prison Reform in the 19th Century

Enforcement has been a method of keeping peace and keeping society civil since the dawn of civilization. This theme has showed up in the cavemen, the teachings of Legalism, ancient Rome, Mesopotamia, the Middle Ages, and up until the modern day.

One of the best methods to keep peace in society is to take the offenders and remove them from society. But then the debate starts: are these criminals to be treated like criminals or like human beings? The American Prison Reform Movement of the 1800s was some peoples' answer to this question.

Pre- 1800s Prisons

In America, prisons have been around since the Europeans landed (and probably even before) in the early 1600s. The earliest prisons were local township jails that were seen as housing facilities for those awaiting trial. Incarceration wasn't seen as a punishment, but instead something that came before punishment. When one was convicted, they were either executed, fined, tortured, or banished. Almshouses, houses of refuge for juveniles, and workhouses where people were confined for significant amounts of time were also maintained. The goal was to create a structured environment for those who didn't have families supporting them. Living conditions were grim, and forced labor was very hard. In 1682, Pennsylvania began to use confinement as punishment for criminal offenders. Death penalty was only allowed for cases involving murder. Punishment for other crimes consisted of fines and labor in correctional facilities. By the late 1700s, prisons were in a disastrous state. They were dangerous, filthy places where the inmates were tortured or made insane, and a punishment in and of themselves.
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1800s Prisons

In the mid-nineteenth century, imprisonment was used as punishment for serious crimes, but legislatures wouldn't agree to finance criminal institutions, which caused for the managers of these institutions to create a more acceptable environment in such industries. Employment rates for prisoners declined, and because they didn't have the necessary funds, prisons began to fall apart. Prisons were instructed to rehabilitate inmates instead of just holding them as prisoners, and new prisons were called "reformatories" or "correctional facilities" for this reason. Eventually, prisons were just places for as many prisoners to be held possible. Because there were so many prisoners, it was chaotic, and guards had to use torture to keep them in line.

Prison Reformers

Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix was first introduced to prison reform when she went to England to recover from tuberculosis. When she returned to the United States in the 1840's, she was so inspired by what she had seen in England that she began to help inmates who were mentally ill in the United States. She believed these inmates deserved better treatment than they were being given. Serving for the Union, she had helped the mentally ill during the Civil War. Because she thought that the mentally ill were so mistreated, she took matters to the courts and won. After this, she visited jails and almhouses, to take notes for a document she drafted and gave to the Massachusetts legislature. This document won her support and caused funds to be set aside for the expansion of the Worcester State Hospital. In addition, she helped to found thirty-two mental hospitals, a school for the blind, and many nursing training facilities. The women under her nursing training struggled to be accepted by army physicians who felt that they, the males, should be in charge of medical issues. She was strict in her criteria for women that she would train, and she was very impatient. For this, she lost the support of the United States Sanitary Commission and other groups that had helped her begin her training. She had a difficult time being accepted, but Dorothea Dix was determined to help.

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Eliza Farnham
Eliza Farnham was appointed prison matron of Sing Sing Prison in 1844. She believed strongly in prison reform, but faced a lot of obstacles. Previously, Sing Sing Prison had been the quintessential scary "House of Fear" under several wardens, most notably Elam Lynds. A new board of inspectors, helmed by John Worth Edmonds, wanted to reform the prison and ergo appointed Eliza Farnham, a well-known philanthropist, feminist, phrenologist, and author. Farnham removed the silence rule, added an educational program, and advocated such luxuries as decorations, recreational activities, and leisure activities. Eventually, Farnham angered John Luckey, a chaplain, and their disagreements prompted Farnham to leave Sing Sing in 1877. But Farnham was remembered for her work as a prison reformist.

Prison Reform Organizations

The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons
Public reaction to the treatment of prison inmates resulted in the 1787 formation of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first of any such reform group in the world. In 1790, the Society persuaded the state legislature to create an act in which prisons were to be reformed, a solitary confinement prison was to be built and the Walnut Street Jail became the first prison in Philadelphia. A new prison, the Cherry Hill Penitentiary was built in 1829 to be a model for the new method of reform, the Pennsylvania System.

Women's Prison Association (WPA)
This association began as the female department of the Prison Association of New York in 1845. This organization desired separate women's prison quarters and to reform female convicts through religious observance and domestic training. They hoped this would lead to jobs for the women such as housekeepers, nannies, and seamstresses. This department became the WPA in 1853, removing itself from PANY. Accomplishments of this organization consist of passing legislation, advocating for the children of imprisoned mothers, and programs that support families being brought together again.

Methods of Reform

There were two primary systems of prison reform used in the 19th century: the Pennsylvania System, or Separate System; and the Auburn System, also known as the Silent System.

Pennsylvania System

  • 24-hour separation that consisted of work, feeding, and occasional vocational instruction
  • Cherry Hill Penitentiary, or the Eastern State Penitentiary, used this system in 1829
  • Relied upon solitary confinement as opposed to labor
  • New inmates were forced to wear a hood when escorted to their cell, so they wouldn't see other prisoners
  • Lockstep and single-file marching were used, with prisoners heads turned to the right
  • Visitors, mail, and newspapers were banned
  • Some conveniences were central heating, flush toilets, exercise, occupation, and proper sanitation
  • Goal was to destroy sense of "criminal community" and encourage penance
  • This design was very influential in U.S. history

Auburn System

  • Individual sleeping cells, some have been recorded to be about 2 1/2 by 61/2 feet
  • Inmates forced to work in shops in silence all day
  • Auburn Prison, built in 1821 in Auburn NY, was first of two prisons authorized by New York law of 1816
  • Emphasis on individuality in architecture - in order to create an environment to reform and teach criminals habits of order by using discipline
  • Prisoners labored 10 hours a day for 6 days a week
  • Influenced reform schools and workhouses to open in the 1820s

Post-1800s Prisons

After the deterioration of prisons in the 19th century, the federal government became involved. They built many prisons, including Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Many inmates in these facilities worked in prison factories. The many wars in the 20th century and the Great Depression caused for fluctuations of inmate population. Convicts were crowded together in dormitories, and this caused much violence. There were many prisoner uprisings in the 1970s. Civil rights organizations filed lawsuits against prisons, claiming that prisons violated the eighth amendment by using cruel and unusual punishment. The courts made prisons improve living conditions for inmates, such as giving every inmate a bed and living space, three meals per day, medical care, opportunities for education, etc. It took a while, but prisons eventually agreed to these terms, and improved conditions in the facilities.

by Bailey McAfee and Hannah Smith