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What Was the Goal of the Prison and Asylum Reform in the 19th Century?

In the 19th century, there was a growing movement to reform prisons and asylums. The goals of this reform movement were focused on improving conditions, providing medical treatment, and rehabilitating inmates and patients. Key figures like Dorothea Dix, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thomas Story Kirkbride led the charge to enact change. Their advocacy and innovations transformed these institutions and laid the groundwork for modern prisons and mental health care.

Goals of Prison Reform

Improve Prison Conditions

In the early 19th century, prison conditions were often abysmal. Cells were overcrowded, dark, damp, and filthy. Disease ran rampant. Prisoners lacked adequate food, sanitation, healthcare, and supervision. There was also a lot of abuse and mistreatment from guards.

The goals of prison reformers were to:

  • Provide better ventilation, lighting, and heating
  • Supply clean water and improved sanitation
  • Reduce overcrowding
  • Offer medical care for prisoners
  • Improve food quality and nutrition
  • Institute supervision and oversight to curb prisoner abuse

Reformers wanted to create healthier, more humane prisons. This table summarizes some of the changes they advocated for:

Prison ConditionReform Goals
OvercrowdingReduce inmate populations
Poor ventilationImprove air flow and circulation
Lack of sunlightProvide larger windows, outdoor areas
Unsanitary cellsBetter cleaning and waste removal
Contaminated waterAccess to clean drinking water
Poor food qualityMore nutritious diet
Spread of diseaseHealthcare, separation of sick inmates
Abuse from guardsOversight, training for staff

Focus on Rehabilitation Rather than Punishment

Early prisons focused solely on punishing criminals. Prisons were places to inflict harsh discipline on inmates. There were few resources or programs aimed at reform.

Prison reformers wanted to shift the focus to rehabilitation. Rather than simply punishing, they believed prisons could change criminals’ behaviors and mindsets through:

  • Education – Classes, vocational training, libraries to foster learning
  • Work programs – Skills training and productive labor as reforming influences
  • Religious instruction – Access to chaplains and religious services
  • Humane treatment – Kindness could inspire remorse and self-improvement
  • Parole – Allowed inmates to demonstrate rehabilitation and return to society
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The goal was for released prisoners to become productive, law-abiding citizens. Rehabilitation was viewed as the most effective way to turn criminals into responsible members of society.

Asylum Reform Goals

Like prisons, asylums in the early 1800s were essentially places of confinement and punishment for the mentally ill. Patients endured deplorable conditions and maltreatment without receiving any medical care. Reformers sought to transform insane asylums into proper therapeutic institutions.

Provide Humane Care and Treatment

The prevailing view was that the mentally ill were hopeless cases needing restraint and control. Reformers argued they needed compassionate care and treatment. The goals were to:

  • Eliminate physical abuse and punishment
  • Improve nutrition and living conditions
  • Develop individualized treatment plans
  • Employ attendants trained in mental healthcare
  • Institute activities like gardening, music, sewing, and handicrafts
  • Furnish respectable clothing and comfortable lodgings

Treating patients with humanity and dignity became the primary objective.

Establish Moral Treatment Methods

Moral treatment was a new approach focused on cultivating self-control and sound habits in patients. The core goals were to:

  • Instill order and discipline through routine
  • Encourage work and industriousness
  • Foster habits of cleanliness and etiquette
  • Build self-restraint and moderation
  • Direct amusements and recreations
  • Provide religious and ethical instruction
  • Reward positive behavior

Strict schedules structured patients’ days around work, meals, classes, recreation, and sleep. The orderly asylum environment was itself the therapy.

Implement emerging medical treatments

Medical SuperintendentContributions
Dr. Benjamin RushIntroduced humane physical treatments like warm baths; Environmental enhancements; Applied “tranquilizing chair” to control mania
Dr. Samuel WoodwardRelied on bloodletting, emetics, purgatives based on humoral theory of mental illness
Dr. Amariah BrighamEndorsed moral treatment; Early adopter of occupational therapy
Dr. Pliny EarleSpecialized dietary regimens for patients

While primitive by modern standards, pioneering doctors introduced new medical techniques like hydrotherapy, bloodletting, and regulated diets. The key goal was to replace punishment with cutting-edge medical treatment.

Key Figures in Prison and Asylum Reform

Certain reformers stand out for spearheading the push for change in prisons and mental asylums.

Dorothea Dix

As Superintendent of Nurses for Union Army hospitals during the Civil War, Dorothea Dix witnessed the inhumane treatment of mentally ill patients. After the war, she conducted extensive investigations into conditions in poorhouses and asylums.

Horrified by what she found, Dix became a tireless advocate for improving facilities and care for the mentally ill. Through memorials to state legislatures, she urged expanded state-funded asylums operated on moral treatment principles. Her advocacy led to the founding or expansion of over 30 asylums.

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Samuel Gridley Howe

Howe joined the Board of State Charities in Massachusetts in 1863 and immediately pushed for prison reform. Arguing that prisons should rehabilitate criminals, he spearheaded initiatives like:

  • Mandatory education and labor for prisoners
  • Segregation of juvenile offenders
  • Parole and probation programs
  • Training and oversight for prison staff
  • A reformatory model with military discipline

His reforms in Massachusetts became a model adopted by other states. Howe emphasized rehabilitation and skill-building to reduce recidivism.

Thomas Story Kirkbride

As physician-in-chief at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, Kirkbride created a prototype for asylum design called the Kirkbride Plan. His linear hospital model featured:

  • Separate wards for male and female patients
  • Architectural harmony with grounds and gardens
  • Maximum sunlight and ventilation
  • Progressively freer wards based on patient improvement
  • Elegant construction to counteract stigma about asylums

Kirkbride’s architectural innovations supported moral treatment. His asylum design was copied around the United States and abroad.

Impact and Results of Reforms

Prison and asylum reforms produced dramatic improvements by the late 19th century:

  • New prisons and asylums built based on reform ideals
  • Clean, orderly facilities replaced chaotic, filthy institutions
  • Medical treatment improved through moral management and medicine
  • Abuse declined through oversight and trained staff
  • Rehabilitation programs allowed inmates to learn skills
  • Many patients were discharged to their families as “cured”
  • Public perception shifted as institutions became more humane

However, problems lingered. Mental health treatments remained limited. Some institutions grew overcrowded again. There were calls for further reform early in the 20th century.

Related Questions

What were the main features of the Kirkbride Plan for asylums?

The Kirkbride Plan, developed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride in the mid-1800s, was a design for mental institutions that emphasized light, ventilation, and organization. Key features included:

  • Linear arrangement of wards from least to most “excited” patients
  • Separate male and female wings
  • Buildings no more than 250 feet long with fireproof construction
  • High ceilings and tall windows for sunlight and air circulation
  • Heat and plumbing systems for sanitation and comfort
  • Ornamental gardens and grounds for scenic therapy
  • Imposing architecture style to inspire dignity
  • Restriction devices used only under supervision

The orderly environment supported moral treatment of patients. Over 30 Kirkbride-inspired asylums were built across the US.

How did Dorothea Dix’s memorials lead to asylum reform?

Dorothea Dix conducted exhaustive investigations into the treatment of the mentally ill starting in 1841. After documenting the terrible conditions at county poorhouses and asylums, she drafted detailed memorials to petition state legislatures for reform. Her compelling reports on abuses and neglect spurred officials into action.

  • Her first memorial to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843 led to enlarging the Worcester Lunatic Asylum.
  • Memorials in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and other states led to building new asylums.
  • Between 1845-1848 she traveled across the country gathering data and lobbying for asylums.
  • Her efforts directly contributed to founding or expanding over 30 mental institutions.
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Dix’s well-researched, persuasive memorials created political will for reform.

How did prison labor during the 19th century contribute to rehabilitation?

Reformers saw productive prison labor as serving multiple rehabilitative purposes:

  • Work instilled discipline, order, and habits of industry in inmates
  • Vocational programs like carpentry or smithing taught useful skills and trades
  • Income from prison labor helped make facilities self-supporting
  • Inmates could gain confidence by becoming skilled workers
  • Labor prevented idleness that led to bad habits and violence

Prison workshops aimed to reform convicts while also defraying costs. The ideal was for released prisoners to gain lawful employment using skills learned behind bars. While still coercive, prison labor became linked more to reform than punishment alone.

Quotes on Prison and Asylum Reform Goals

“It is the spirit and not the form of institutions by which their character is to be tested.” – Dorothea Dix

“Prisons should be so arranged and managed as to discipline and reform criminals, and render their subjection to authority less necessary.” – Samuel Gridley Howe, 1865

“It seems to me that the insane have everything to hope for in moral management wisely adapted to their condition.” – Amariah Brigham, Superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum

“The treatment of insanity is based on principle, method, and system… I have acted on the principle, that insanity can be cured.” – Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride

“The insane mind is open to all good influences, and has a heightened susceptibility to purer thoughts and nobler aspirations.” – Florence Nightingale

These quotes capture the reformers’ shared beliefs that humane, moral treatment could genuinely improve both criminals and the mentally ill. Enlightened rehabilitation, not punishment alone, became the new goal.


Prison and asylum reform in the 19th century marked a profound shift in attitudes and practices. For the first time, incarcerated and mentally ill populations were seen as warranting compassion, dignity, and medical treatment. Reformers like Dorothea Dix, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride crusaded tirelessly to transform monstrous institutions into places of moral improvement.

Through their pioneering work, by 1900 the goals had changed from punishment and confinement to rehabilitation and humane care. There is still significant room for improvement in prisons and mental health facilities even today. But this period launched the long evolution towards more enlightened and effective treatment of society’s most vulnerable citizens. The reformers’ visions and innovations remain guiding inspirations as we continue striving to uphold human rights for all.

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