Document Type

Honors Thesis

Publication Date



The early 19th century was marked by reform movements aimed at alleviating poverty, reducing crime, decreasing illiteracy, and providing better care for the mentally ill. In the United States, as in Europe, the debate over prison reform arose from the growing public fear that the stability of social institutions and values was crumbling, especially because lawlessness abounded across the country in the Jacksonian era.[1] Reformers sought a way to save and preserve the established social order, and reformers found their cure-all solution in the establishment of penitentiaries, which were institutions that sought to transform the criminal into an industrious member of society. As such, penitentiaries were best characterized as the practical exercise of Enlightenment thought, even going so far as to be considered as an alternative to, if not a complete replacement for, capital punishment.[2]

[1] Stephen Mitz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xiii.

[2] “Chester District, Presentment That The Criminal Code Is Too Harsh, A Penitentiary Is Needed To Provide An Alternative To Capital Punishment, The Introduction Of Slaves To S.C. From Other States Should Be Halted, Both The Gaol and Courthouse Require Replacement, Creditors Should Be Able To Attach The Effects of Debtors, and The Catawba River Should Be Opened For Navigation. (4 Pages) Date: 1816.” South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH). Online. In addition, in 1839, the South Carolina Special Committee on Penitentiaries said that “death is inflicted, like some potent panacea in a System of quackery, as the only cure for all crimes and offences.” “Perry, Benjamin F., Chairman Of Special Committee On Penitentiaries, Report And One Enclosure, Others Missing, Comparing Penal Systems In Other States And Nations, Giving Details On The Cost Of Penitentiary Constuction, Recommending Reform Of S.C. Criminal Cope, And Recommending The State Adopt The Pennsylviania Penitentiary System. (40 Pages) Date: 1839 C.” SCDAH. Online Records Index.



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