At the opening of the century the most generous hearts have been moved by the work of John Howard to share the feeling which had been prompted it. Upon the consciousness of humanity there had dawned a perception of what it is to feel with those who are bound, as if bound with them. The first woman to make a

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Women in Social Reform in the 19th Century - Women's Contribution to Prison Reform - Dorothy Dix

Dorothy Dix

great direct contribution to prison reform was Elizabeth Frye. From her death in 1845 the impulse communicated by her was carried forward by Dorothy Dix, before whose death in 1887 the work had been expanded by Madame Bogelot of France, Mlle. Grandpré, Madame DuBarrau, and Madame Bogelot of France, and their associates, to include the care of prisoners after the expiration of their terms of incarceration. The doctrine advanced by the women by the last named, though first scoffed at, has now become the theory of the world, and its successful operation under the guidance of the practical French mind, has become an inspiration to prison laborers everywhere.

The distinct contributions made by women to prison reform have been the following: They have lifted the emphasis from retributive justice, whose aim is punishment, and have placed it upon those moral agencies which look to the repentance and the redemption of the prisoner. To this end women have organized societies for prison visitation, have devised prison amusements and prison instruction, and have found that for the inmates of prisons, as well as for human beings outside of the prison walls, work is a means of salvation. They have therefore provided work, not for the incarcerated only, but they have organized societies the sole business of whose members is to become acquainted with the prisoner during incarceration, with a view to getting knowledge of her faculties, her skill, her tendency, and to providing a situation that shall wait to receive her so soon as she is liberated.

It is the women workers in prisons who have found that the care of the sick, the care of little children, and the supervision of all the petty details that go into the life of a simple home, are the most recuperative of agencies. Therefore for those whom positions are the most welcome them cannot be found, small homes have been established, at the head of which a liberated prisoner is placed, under whose care are put, either a few younger released prisoners for whom situations have not been obtained, or the children of prisoners and other unfortunates.

The highest thought expressed in prison reform up to date arises from the feeling that there may be the outside of prison walls sinners whose lives are less virtuous than the lives of criminals within; and also from the conviction that human nature in its fundamental qualities remains the same wherever encountered; that the same motives which appeal to people in normal conditions appeal to the imprisoned; that the same influences which develop the best in one class, if brought to bear upon the other class, will be followed by similar results. This practically is a confession that one might have committed any crime known to prison inmates if born, reared, and educated under the same conditions and influences; and that, on the other hand, the prisoner might be all or more than the observer is, had she been born, nurtured, and protected as the latter had been. The extension to prisoners of this identification of one’s self with others has induced and directed prison reform. The Golden Rule will be practiced only in proportion as one realizes the possible identity of one’s self with another. To this identification of one’s self with the criminal class women have largely contributed. The maternal feeling is strong, deep, and universal. The thought that every prisoner has been nursed and fondled at some mother’s breast, and that her own nursling might, under the same circumstances of temptation, occupy any prisoner’s place, is that element in “the eternal womanly” which has led into prison reform.

While the most important treatises upon penology have probably been written by men, some of the most successful prison workers have been women, and to women notably is due the organization of schemes for the amelioration of conditions of prison life; for the substitution of remedial for punitive measures; for the provision of separate prisons for men and women; and for those measures which result in again relating released criminals to normal society. It is moreover true that the biographies, autobiographies, letters, and journals of the women whose names are connected with prison work, are not less helpful to prison workers than the formal treatises on penology.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.

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