Constructing the Past

Publication Date

Spring 2007


Dix began her prison reform work by visiting prisons across the country, and two systems emerged as the models of reform. Dix sought a total reform of the system, of both its physical structures, and more importantly, its programs and systems. In order to have a better understanding of the prison systems, Dix traveled throughout the country, visiting prisons, meeting with wardens and evaluating the various systems for their effectiveness. From 1841 to 1843, she visited state prisons, evaluating their respective benefits. Despite her efforts to remain objective, her opinions were always colored by her deeply held religious convictions. Finally, Dix was faced with two somewhat antithetical systems of prison reform to choose from, the Auburn system and the Pennsylvania system. Her eventual preference for the Pennsylvania system reflects the impact of her religious convictions on her point of view. The Auburn system was first implemented in New York at Sing-Sing prison in 1825. In this system the prisoners were kept on a strict schedule. The prisoners were isolated in own cells and slept alone at night, but labored together during the day and ate together at mealtimes. Although, these prisoners “were forbidden to converse with fellow inmates or even exchange glances while on the job, at meals, or in their cells,” in practice, however, this was seldom the case. Prisoners often conversed and were subjected to the adverse influences of their fellow inmates. Dix, like many other students of this system, feared that this led to free and open communication among the prisoners: “The prisoners are perfectly familiar with each other’s history and with many circumstances not occurring in the shop and yards.” Although the guards and wardens may have strictly enforced the rule of silence at some point in time, this system “generally ends in a certain degree of toleration in the use of speech.” This open communication could make prisons a training ground for a future life in crime, she concluded.