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Prison and Asylums Reform Movement

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Prison and Asylums Reform Movement was reform movement for the mentally ill in 19 century.  Key events, goals and accomplishments of Prison and Asylums Reform Movement.

St Lukes

Prison and asylum reform movement was a national reform movement that started in the 1840s. The goal of the prison and asylum reform movement was to certainly change the way people use to approach and treat the mentally ill. The movement aims to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation of mentally ill.

Before this movement, the mentally ill were considered a result of sin or demonic possession. A Boston women Doretha Dox initiated this movement.

Dorothea Dix

Who Was Dorothea Dix?

Dorothea Dix was an American advocate and a social reformer. She was born on April 4, 1802. Her father, Joseph Dix was a religious fanatic and distributor of religious tracts.

She founded a school for girls, Dix Mansion in the year 1819. Her book “Conservations on Common Things” got publish in the year 1824. She offered her services as Superintended of Army Nurses during the Civil War.

Dorothea Dix was President of Life of the Army Nurses Association. She holds two national flags for her services during the Civil War. She was also in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979.

Her dedication to the welfare of the mentally ill undoubtedly led to widespread international reforms. Dorothea also recommended reforms in many countries to construct hospitals for the mentally ill.

Background of Prison and Asylum Reform Movement 

In 1841, Dorothea Dix agreed to teach Sunday school at a jail. But what she witnessed there changed her life forever. She was terrified to see how the inmates are locked in cages. How children are accused of minor thefts. Children’s are prisoned with adult criminals. She wants to find out if the situation was this bad everywhere else or not.

In order to check the situations further she visited a number of jails and prisons throughout Massachusetts. There was only one private asylum in Massachusetts for the mentally ill but it was expensive and not everyone could afford to send their family members there.

What stupefied her most was the treatment of the mentally ill. They are lock in dirty and crowded prison cells. Dorothea believed that the mentally ill needed treatment and care, not punishment.

prison and asylum reform

Dorothea then started collecting information and then prepared a detailed report on whatever she had seen. She also presented her report to the Massachusetts State legislature:

                       “I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane, and idiotic men and women. I proceed, gentleman, briefly call to call your attention to the presence of insane persons, confined…in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, and pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience”.

Goals of Prison and Asylum Reform Movement

Some of the goals prison and asylum reform movement wanted to achieve were:

  • To emphasize treatment and rehabilitation of the prisoners.
  • To treat the mentally ill and insane fairly.
  • Rehabilitation of the mentally ill instead of incarceration until death.
  • To improve the treatment for all people regardless of gender, age, or race.

 Key Events of Prison and Asylum Reform Movement 

Some of the key events of prison and asylum reform movement were:

YearMajor Events
After 1812Reforms to remove children from jails into juvenile detention centers.
1816Auburn prison was opened in which prisons worked during the day and were kept in solitary confinement at night.
1821Around 82 men committed suicide in Auburn prison after being locked in solitary and mental breakdown.
1825Boston Prison Discipline Society established with the purpose of improvement of prisons. It was headed by Louis Dwight. He was the first national figure in prison reform.
1829Eastern State Penitentiary became operational in the year in 1829. It was also known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. It was the world first penitentiary, designed to inspire penitence or true regrets in prisoner’s hearts.
1835America had two of the best prisons in the world.
1841Eastern State Hospital was opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was the first public facility constructed for the treatment of mentally ill. In addition to that it also had many modern day luxuries for the prisoners.
1848In the year 1848 Dorothea Dix asked United States Congress for five million acres for the care of mentally ill.
1854President Franklin Piece vetoed the Congressional Mental Health Plan.

Prison and Asylum Reform Movement Accomplishments

  • Firstly, the prison and asylum reform movement brought attention to the treatment of lesser humans
  • The movement indeed convinced people that prisoners and asylums need to have a hospitable setting.
  • After this reform the mentally ill undoubtedly get humanly treatment.
  • It also improved the conditions of mental asylums across the United States.
  • Prisoners sought rehabilitation instead of abuse and punishment.
  • Also the lawmakers agreed and voted to create public asylums for the mentally ill.
  • Under the 8th Amendment, the justice improved. It certainly prevent the cruel and harsh punishment for prisoners. 

Above all, Prison and asylum reform movement was a movement that focused less on a specific creed or race of people. It was a movement of reform that fought for the mentally ill who were a forgotten group of people during that time.

aLso read:History as a linear or a cyclic process

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