PRISON/MENTAL HEALTH REFORM Dorothea Dix was one of the first women to work to change America’s social conscience. After many years of in teaching and writing, she worked for the reform of mental-health institutions, and throughout the second half of her eighty-five-year life she traveled throughout the United States on behalf of this cause. Always sick, often on the brink of exhaustion, she completely devoted herself to the cause of mental-health reform. Along the way she developed political skills, an iron will, and won both loyal friends and violent enemies.
In 1841, Dix began working as a Sunday School teacher in the women's prison at Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was disgusted by the horrible and inhuman treatment of the prisoners, especially those who were mentally ill, and from then on the reform of mental-health care became her overriding concern.
Her first step was to get influential Bostonians such as Samuel Gridley Howe, himself a leading asylum reformer; the educator Horace Mann; and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to visit the prison and publicize its conditions. She was convinced that a good, clean environment and kind treatment was likely to help those suffering from mental illness to recover. It was not, in her view, a punishment from God but a natural misfortune that this favorable treatment might correct.
With great zeal, Dix began to campaign for the building of asylums and for them to be run along humane lines. She was particularly affected, emotionally, by how many of the mentally ill were poor and penniless. Unable to work, sometimes abandoned by their families, they were the most helpless victims she had ever seen.
As she traveled and researched the terrible conditions under which the mentally ill of Massachusetts suffered she wrote down in detail all she had seen. She described how many of the unfortunate crazed were kept in cabins, cages, closets, stalls, and other pens of one kind or another. Often they were chained, abandoned, and neglected to the point that they became filthy. Many others were brutally beaten, both scenes together painted a horrifying picture.
With the encouragement of Howe and Sumner, she gathered information on the treatment of insanity throughout the state, summarizing it in a long report, the "Massachusetts Memorial." When Howe read it to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843, however, the reaction was not favorable. Most did not want to believe all of the horrible circumstances it described. Only by collecting more and more evidence could Dix and her allies convince the legislators that the report was accurate and that the reforms she was fighting for ought to be listened to and enacted as soon as possible.
The Massachusetts experience taught her that to persuade state legislators she must have hard evidence. However, Dix would always back up her statistics with a personal story. For example the story of Abraham Simmons: Simmons was confined in a stone-roofed, stone-floored cell, seven feet square. There were two doors to the cell, but both were double locked, cutting off light and ventilation. On the day that Dix visited Simmons his cell was coated with frost. Simmons had two blankets but one was soaking wet and the other was frozen stiff. Simmons, tied to the floor by an ox-chain, stood chattering and shivering in the corner.
Dix discovered that Simmons had been confined there for three years and that the family on whose farm he was jailed was too scared of him even to enter the shelter. She went in, consoled Simmons, and promised to improve his situation. Dix frequently used this example as she talked with government officials. Unfortunately, Simmons died while the Rhode Island government was debating the point but Dix's campaign led to a state government providing money for the mentally ill for the first time in the state's history.
Her next step was to call for assistance for the mentally ill at the national level. This step proved more difficult to accomplish, however, because the federal government was then small and stayed out of the business of social welfare. Each state dealt with social welfare as it saw fit. Dix's idea was that the federal government should set aside ten million acres of national land and use the funds raised from its sale or lease to build and maintain mental hospitals.
For six years, bills based on this plan were debated in Congress. Despite her ability to get the bill through Congress in 1854, the act was vetoed by President Franklin Pierce. Pierce believed the bill would make the federal government too big and upset the federal-state balance of power.
Although care of the insane was her central concern, Dix also found time to press forward other, related concerns. She improved ocean rescue facilities in Newfoundland, Canada; wrote a book on prison reform, emphasizing the need to educate and rehabilitate prisoners; and contributed to other New England reform causes such as women's rights and temperance (alcohol use).
The mentally ill remained her chief interest, however. One of her most important achievements was the founding of a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., for members of the armed services. After gaining money from Congress she persuaded the man on whose land it was to be sited, Thomas Blagden, to reduce his asking price from $40,000 to $25,000, since that was the limit of her money from Congress. Worn down by her arguments and her skillful manipulation of his conscience, Blagden finally agreed. Throughout her life, Dix had little to offer in the way of medical knowledge and made no claim to being an expert. Her intention was rather to set up safe, dry, warm environments in which inmates could be well fed and protected: others must decide on good practical treatments.
An attack of malaria in 1870 forced Dix to slow down, but she lived on for another seventeen years, writing and visiting on behalf of her causes. In 1881 she retired to a Trenton, New Jersey, hospital she had helped to design and build nearly forty years earlier. There she died in 1887.
When her campaign began in 1841, there were only thirteen mental hospitals in America. By her death, there were 123. Dorothea Dix had played a direct role in the founding of at least thirty-two and an indirect role in all the others.
This was adapted from a Gale Net Group article about Dorothea Dix by C. Witschonke.
The web address is as follows: http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/DC;jsessionid=FAE38C40442EC908FD8D6C603F454872?txba=Dorothea+Dix&vrsn=3.0&slb=SU&locID=tlc049202910&srchtp=basic&c=3&ste=21&tbst=ts_bsc&tab=1&docNum=CD2108100654&fail=0&bConts=9