Prison Reform

Origins of the Movement 

The prison reform movement is an ongoing movement in the United States seeking to improve the conditions for inmates in the penal system. The arguments in support of prison reform are generally founded on one of two assertions. The first is that abusive conditions, such as inadequate food, poor hygiene and medical care, and abuse by guards, inside prisons constitute a violation of fundamental human and civil rights. This argument attempts to appeal to not only one's sense of humanity, but also the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids "cruel and unusual punishment".

The second argument hinges on the rehabilitation of prisoners. In order for the penal system to be as effective as possible and beneficial to society, it is important to determine what the goal of the penal system as a whole is.There are various theories on what the role of the penal system should be. Two theories dominated the doctrine about the role of the penal system until late in the 19th century, and they persisted into the 20th century as well. These theories were that should prison should punish criminals for their deeds and that the threat of prison should serve to deter people from criminal behavior. A survey of American prisons in the 1860s by Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight concluded that not a single state's penitentiary system focused on rehabilitating its prisoners.[1] However, these two theories have largely fallen out of usage, in favor of the doctrine of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation seeks to correct the areas in which a criminal is lacking, with the end goal of transforming them into a useful member of society.

An example of a program focused on rehabilitating prisoners is the Vipassanā meditation program detailed in the film The Dhamma Brothers , a documentary about Donaldson Correction Facility in Alabama. The meditation program encourages the inmates to reflect on their own situation, past actions, and to really probe deeply within themselves. It teaches patience and self-discipline, by forcing the men to confront difficult feelings from their past. The men learn to not be ruled by their emotions, and instead of acting impulsively on anger or other feelings, contemplate each emotion they feel, then let it go. In this way, Vipassanā is an ideal example of a prisoner rehabilitation program focused on producing useful members of society.

  • American
Abigail Hopper Gibbons (1801-1893)
  • Abigail born into a quaker family, and in 1821 established her own school for quaker children
  • She married a quaker named James S. Gibbons
  • Together they were known abolitionists and members of the Manhattan Anti Slavery Society
  • In 1845 her father founded the Prison Association of New York and Abigail became a leading figure in the movement.
  • Then in 1846 Abigail was elected to a committee in charge of the halfway house for discharged women prisoners.
  • She worked as a volunteer nurse during WWII for four years
  • After WWII she rejoined the Womens Prison Association and became president
  • She also founded two major associations:
    • The Labor and Aid Society that helped veterans, war widows, and orphans.
    • The Protestant Asylum for Infants
John Shaw Billings (1838-1913)
Maud Ballington Booth(1865-1948)
  • Maud Booth was born in England and grew up in London. Her parents had a strong background in social work, which may have inspired the work she did later in her life.
  • She worked with the Salvation Army in Europe, then co-founded Volunteers of America and began working to improve prison conditions in the United States in the early 1900s
  • One of Booth's most significant contributions was in the area of parole and rehabilitation.
    • Prior to her era, prisons merely sought to contain prisoners, rather than rehabilitate them or reform them.
    • Due to Booth's work, prisons began to provide services improving parole procedures and providing skills that would be necessary to recently released inmates, such as social and people skills training, and re-acclimating them to society.
    • She advocated for programs that sought to identify and treat the sources of criminal behavior, instead of merely punishing prisoners.

Elizabeth LEslie Rous Wright Comstock (1815-1891)
Katharine Bement Davis (1860-1935)
Goldsborough Sappington Griffith (1814-1904)
Louisine Waldron Havemeyer (1855-1929)
Jessie Donaldson Hodder (1867-1931)
Isaac Tatem Hopper (1771-1852)
ALice Bertha Kroeger (1864-1909)
Josephus Nelson Larned (1836-1913)
Sophia Lousia Robbins Little (1799-1893)
Cornelia Marvin (1873-1957)
Robert Wilson McCaughry (1839-1920)
Anne Carroll Moore (1871-1961)
Timothy Nicholson (1828-1924)
Sarah Worthington King Peter (1800--1877)
Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973)
William M. F. Round (1845-1906)
Lutie Eugenia Stearns (1866-1943)
Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1867-1944)
Julia Strudwich Tutwiler (1841-1916)
Frederick Howard Wines (1838-1912)
Caroline Bayard Stevens Wittpenn (1859-1932)

Dr. Enoch Cobb Wines (1806-1879)
  • Wines was a 19th century minister and prison reform advocate
  • In the first half of his life, he studied theology and became a preacher.
  • In the 1860s, he dedicated himself to the cause of prison reform
    • 1862: Became secretary of the New York Prison Association
    • 1870: Founded and became secretary of the National Prison Association
    • July 1872: Organized in London the first "International Penitentiary Congress" in London, to discuss the topic of prison reform and prisoners' rights, with representatives from 26 countries.
  • Wrote 12 books, including:
    • The Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada (1867)
    • State of Prisons and Child-Saving Institutions (1880)
Theodore Dwight (1822-1892)
  • Jurist and lawyer who worked with Enoch Cobb Wines on prison reform initiatives.
    • Collaborated with Wines on their 1867 report about the status and conditions of prisons in the United States.
    • Headed the New York Prison Association and was a delegate at the International Prisoner Congress in Stockholm
  • Helped establish Elmira Correctional Facility, a high-security prison for young men between the ages of 16 and 30.
    • Elmira was revolutionary in a number of ways; it was one of the first to try and reform the human being inside each prisoner.
    • Corporal punishment, forced labor, and religious indoctrination and other immoral practices were abolished.
    • Each inmate was given his own custom-created program designed to help reform him as much as possible.
      • In this was, Elmira was far ahead of its time in terms of prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation
Zebulon Brockway (1828-1920)
  • Often regarded as the father of prison reform, Zebulon started as a clerk in Connecticuts Wethersfield Prison
  • In 1854 as Superintendent, he started trying to make the prison more rehabilitative for the prisoners
  • He then moved to Elmira State Reformatory in 1876 and enacted his ideals there
  • Unfortunately in 1900, he was forced to resign because of the criticism of his ideals
Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849-1934)
  • Born July 16, 1849
  • A school teacher in her youth until she married Jeremiah R. Foltz and moved to California
  • In California she learned that only white males could enter bars and made an amendment allowing women to enter bars that was pushed through legislature
  • After being denied entrance to Hastings College of Law in San Francisco brought suit and successfully argued her case to the supreme court
  • Foltz was an active women rights activist throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's.
  • In 1910, Foltz became the first women member of the State Board of Charities and Corrections
  • She also helped give indigent defenders public defenders and segregate juvenile offenders from adult prisoners
Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887)

  • Born in 1802 in Massachusetts
  • Opened a school in 1816 when she was only 14 and taught for 20 years
  • Just before she turned 40, she was asked to take over a sunday school class at east cambridge prison
  • She was appalled because mentally ill women were being held with hardened criminals
  • Dix brought the situation too court and even though she lost, womens conditions were improved
  • Dix then began going to different jails and wrote a report on how bad the conditions were for the mentally ill
  • The report created an uproar and Dix had to persuade a few influential men to fight for her cause.
  • Dix and the men succeeded in getting money from the legislature that was needed to expand the state hospital
  • Dix played a direct roll in founding 32 mental hospitals
Eliza Wood Burhans Farnham (1815-1864)
  • Farnham was an advocate of rehabilitative prison internment
  • In 1844 she became matron of the womens division of Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York
  • She then established rules that allowed prisoners to speak to each other, set up discussions, privileges, and training
  • She made many enemies however and was forced to resign only four years later in 1848
  • She published many books such as:
    • Life in Prairie Land
    • In Doors and Out
  • In 1862 she became the matron of the female department of the Stockten insane asylum
Julia Strudwick Tutwiler (1841-1916)
  • Alabama educator and prison reform worker
    • Focused on making education available to those groups who had typically been denied it, such as women and prisoners.
    • Founded the Tuscaloosa Benevolent Association in 1880 to aid in prison reform efforts.
    • Pushed for reforms such as classification of inmates by their crime committed, and for state inspections of prisons and other facilities, in order to ensure that certain standards for prisons were being met.
    • In addition, she established an innovative school system within prisons, allowing inmates to educate themselves to a degree, one of the most key steps to rehabilitation.
Kate Richards O'Hare Cunningham (1877-1948)
  • Cunningham started working to reform prisons after she herself was sent to prison under the espionage act.
  • She was sent to prison in 1919 and published two books :
    • Kate O'hare's Prison Letters
    • In Prison
  • Later she recieved a full pardon from Calvin Coolidge
  • In 1922 she organized the Childrens Crusade, which got hundreds of children of imprisoned anti-war agitators to march on Washington
  • International


John Howard Association of Illinois: Working for Prison Reform Since 1901
An Illinois citizen advocacy organization focusing on public policies that ensure public safety, rehabilitation, and fiscal responsibility and mediating concerns affecting inmates, their families, prison officials, and legislators. Primary nonviolent methodology: advocacy and policy reform

American Correctional Association : The ACA is one of the oldest and largest prison reform associations that was first founded in 1870. In the 1955 the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and emphasized the ACA's focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment.

U.N.I.O.N. : "United for no injustice, oppression, or neglect." UNION is working to reform the California Justice system and hopefully can make prisons rehabilitate all prisoners. They feel that prisons end up putting men back into the world worse than they were before which is why they need to change the prison system.

Nonviolent Strategies, Campaigns, Tactics

Timeline of Prison Reform in the United States

  • 2002: Larry Osborne becomes the 100th death-row inmate exonerated in the United States since 1973. As of October 2010, the number of death-row inmates freed stands at 138. Advocates for prison reform point to these kinds cases as a sign of fallibility and corruption in the United States justice system, and as a reason to abolish the death penalty. Another concern of prison reform advocates is the role that race frequently plays in capital cases. Blacks are sentenced to death at a rate far higher than their proportion of the population. 41% of death-row inmates are black, but blacks make up only 12% of the population. The total number of whites and blacks murdered are similar, but 80% of all people executed since 1977 were convicted of murdering a white victim.


Bennett, Scott H. "'Free American Political Prisoners': Pacifist Activism and
Civil Liberties, 1945-48." Journal of Peace Research 40.4, Special Issue on
Peace History (2003): 413-433. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.

[1] Morris, Norval; Rothman, David J. (1995), Oxford History of the Prison, New York, Oxford University Press

"prison reform." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online . Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/477222/prison-reform>.
Our mission is to place a national spotlight upon the nations approach to juvenile justice, and to place faces and stories to the children that were waived, and thereby, held to an adult standard in the courtroom and then sent to adult prisons. Our mission is to end the practice of sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, and to reduce the harm caused to children in adult prisons by supporting legislation that will make those who were sentenced as children eligible to have their sentences reviewed at some point during their incarceration. Advocates for Abandoned Adolescent's mission is to introduce concerned citizens to effective ways in which they can contribute to enhancing the quality of juvenile justice, to create chapters of A.A.A. in every state coast to coast. To organize and coordinate a national synchronized protest on all fifty state capitals on the same day, at the same moment and unified under the A.A.A. banner. Advocates for Abandoned Adolescents - Our Mission is to do better!

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