Dorothea Dix: Prison and Asylum Reform and Reconstruction

     Before she became a symbol for prison reform and separate institutions for the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix was a child growing up in New England in the early 1800s. Her childhood was difficult; her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother suffered from mental illness. Because she was the oldest and her parents were often incompetent, Dorothea found herself taking care of her younger brothers. She claims that she “never knew childhood.” One positive impact her father left on Dorothea’s life was teaching her how to read and write. She was ahead when she began school and discovered a passion for reading and teaching. She later moved to Boston to live with her grandmother where, with the help of her fiancé, started a school for poor children. She later decided to not get married, and dedicated all of her time to teaching until she became ill in 1936.

Along with teaching in schools, Dix was a tutor, governess, and an author. She wrote children’s books and one is entitled, Conversations on Common Things (an encyclopedia for children).

In 1841, Dix visited the Cambridge jail to teach Sunday school. Shocked by the mixture of prisoners and the sick, she traveled to various jails and poorhouses in Boston to observe and record the conditions. Starting in 1820, mental illness was no longer viewed as sin within the medical community, but only those who could afford the help from private institutions could undergo moral treatments. The poor and immigrants were sent to poorhouses or jails. Public institutions were available, but patients did not receive the same treatment as those in private institutions. They were also not well-provided for by the state.

Because of Dix’s compassion and Unitarian beliefs and practices, she began the long journey of fighting for prison and hospital reform. Dix spent years conducting interviews with experts and patients, and her results were startling. She then began a radical campaign to stop treating mental illness as a crime. Her work resulted in taking mental health patients out of jails and putting them in hospitals. She contributed in building multiple mental health facilities. Due to Dix’s contributions, Illinois established their first mental hospital.

An image of staff at Dorothea Dix Hospital in 1896 from the State Archives

 Although Dix’s advocacy was effective during her time, society today seems to have continued some habits existing as early as the 1830’s, that is to say, mentally ill people are most likely to be thrown into jails instead of getting proper treatment in mental health facilities. Today’s prisons continue to not fully address the health conditions of incarcerated people and to provide the proper health care. Those able to afford proper treatment can avoid the dangers of being mentally ill in a society where most poor people with mental illness are placed in jails to maintain the “safety of the society”.


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