Prison reform in Connecticut

January 30, 2013 · Collections, Manuscripts ·

In 1839 a committee was charged with examining the current Windham County Jail and making recommendations for improvement. We recently acquired a broadside that contains the committee’s report, which is very similar in intent to national efforts at prison reform in the early 19th century.

Circular with the report of a committee to examine the Windham County jail. Broadside Medium 1839 C578

Circular with the report of a committee to examine the Windham County jail. Broadside Medium 1839 C578

The first recommendation was to house debtors separately from criminals and women separately from men. In the proposed new design, the Keeper’s house would be directly connected to the prison and that is where debtors and women would be held. Those criminals awaiting trial, and still presumed to be innocent, would be housed in the prison but in rooms lighter and airier than those for convicted felons. There was to be no contact between the latter two groups of people.

The main theme of prison reform was to treat the criminal’s soul and morals in addition to punishing his body. As the committee states :

The class of Delinquents who are the most numerous . . . comprehend all offenders whose punishment is short of the States Prison, or . . . all whose punishment is by Law a money fine or imprisonment in the County Jail. The commission of such offences do not imply a total depravation of mind. They result oftentimes from the want of reflection and sometimes from the momentary predominance of irregular passions, oftener perhaps from the effect of ardent spirits, and sometimes for an aversion to labor which is so deeply seated in the idle and profligate. Humanity may yet hope, that the punishment of such offences may be so inflicted in a course of prison discipline, as will tend to reform, instead of compleating the moral degradation of the sufferer. Personal restraint and unpaid labor will be sufficiently irksome as a punishment, without destroying at the same time the self estimation that is so much the foundation of all moral conduct.

The committee then recommends constructing a new brick or stone prison, but leaves the decision of incurring such an expense to the local governments. They suggest that Windham may want to wait and see how prison reform works in Hartford and New London before embarking on such a project.

In our online catalog there are numerous printed and manuscript materials about Wethersfield and Newgate prisons and the Corttis family papers include information about the Windham prison in particular. It would be interesting to look at these primary sources to see if accounts and reports contained in them offer any proof of the effectiveness of prison reform, or if these institutions even considered changing their procedures. That sounds like a good Senior thesis to me!

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