To Cure the Criminal: The Practice of Institutionalization in Asylum and Penitentiary History

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Natalie Dykstra, Hope College

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The practice of separating the poor, the insane, and the criminal from society has existed for centuries. In the United States in the nineteenth century, the practice of institutionalization to cure mental illness produced inhumane conditions in insane asylums. Thanks in part to the efforts of social reformers, the asylum system has become obsolete. However, the practice of institutionalization is still practiced in the American penitentiary system. Using the autobiography of Clifford Beers, an asylum inpatient from 1900 until 1903, and a history of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, I will draw comparisons between the asylum system and the penitentiary system in both ideology and practice. Just as separating the individual from society failed to cure the insane, institutionalization in the penitentiary system has failed to “cure” criminality. Using Tocqueville and Foucault as resources, I will show that while separation functions as a punishment, it creates a moral environment that makes rehabilitation impossible.

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