The Abolition Movement Gains Ground, 1800-1917
During the nineteenth century, the goals of abolitionists were intertwined with those of prison reformers in part because they tended to share a common view of humanity, but also because effective reform of prisoners provided for both groups an attractive alternative to execution.
In keeping with ideas that had grown out of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, reformers held that less severe and more sure penalties which acknowledged the dignity of the individual and emphasized proportionate and minimal punishment would be more able to protect the public by deterring and reforming offenders. Central to this movement was the development of the penitentiary system. In contrast to prisons -- which were characterized as schools for crime, debauchery, idleness, and profanity -- penitentiaries were to be schools of reform that would encourage prisoners to develop morals, rectitude, and self-respect through prayer, reflection, and solitude.
However, early enthusiasm for the penitentiary as an alternative to capital punishment soon was dampened. By the turn of the century -- thirteen years after Benjamin Rush launched the first major movement against capital punishment and ten years after the first penitentiary was opened -- it was apparent that the expensive and overcrowded facilities were failing to reform criminals or prevent crime. While supporters argued that more time was all that was needed to improve the effectiveness of the penitentiary (see Document 12), this did not appear to be the case. In 1817, authorities in Philadelphia and Massachusetts