Poverty & Prisons

Kyle Sondgeroth

AHTC Summer Institute 2009

Reform, Reformers, and Reformatories


            All three keynote speakers from this week’s Summer Institute presented on separate topics, yet all seemed to be underwritten by the same problem: poverty. The issue of destitution was the common thread among Tim Gilfoyle’s lecture on the 19th century criminal world, Stacey Robertson’s discussion on benevolence and women’s rights, and Jim Barrett’s presentation on gang violence. As all three of these speakers delved into highly different subject matter, each one came back to the fact that a lack of money led to many problems in the late 19th,  20th,  and 21st centuries. The scarcity of good jobs, good opportunities, and good wages led groups such as immigrants or the uneducated to venture into a life of crime. Weather looking at George Appo’s poor life on the street after his parents abandoned him or immigrant women being used as prostitutes to help earn money for their family, poverty is the underlying cause for many of these criminal actions. As I thought about this during the week, my mind began to ask some serious questions regarding the treatment of the poor during the middle of the 19th century. Where could the poor turn for help when in need? There were no unemployment benefits, Medicaid, or Social Security Administration in the mid 1800s. To answer these questions, I turned to reformer Dorothea Dix and her reform work in Illinois.

During the middle to late 19th century, people who were too poor to pay rent or find a good wage were often thrown in prison. Very often, the poor person being thrown in jail broke no law. He or she was never found guilty of any wrongdoing. This resonates with what the facts that Tim Gilfoyle gave during his lecture. He stated that during the 1880s more than ¾ of the jails had inmates that had never been served a warrant. In today’s legal system that seems outrageous!

Here in central Illinois, one such jail that also served as the county poorhouse was the Sangamon County Jail. Reformer Dorothea Dix was appalled at this set-up. In his book Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois, author David Lightner publishes a letter that Dix wrote to the Springfield Journal and the State Register. In the letter Dix describes the jail:

“a building constructed externally of brick, lined with timber. It embraces apartments of the keeper’s family upon the first floor, and of the prison department on the second. This is occupied as necessity requires, not only by felons and other criminals, but in default of a State hospital at present, for the safe keeping of the insane…But the most extraordinary purpose to which this prison is appropriated, by the County Commissioners, in addition to the above named now is a poor-house.” (Lightner, p. 69)

The “jail” that Dix describes is really performing 3 duties. First, it houses all of the criminals in Sangamon County. Second, because there is no State Hospital, it also takes in all of the criminally insane. Third, it is the receiving place of the impoverished, destitute, and poor citizens of the county. So, not only are these poor citizens being tossed into the penal system for breaking no law, but they must share their time with both the hardened criminals of the world and the insane. For Dorothea Dix, this was too much.

            Dix spent much of her life crusading for the proper treatment of prisoners, the insane and the poor. In 1846 Dix came to Illinois following a whirlwind tour of prisons around the United States. Her first tour of the Illinois State Prison at Alton in 1846 left her horrified. In early 1847 she visited the Sangamon County Jail where she would encounter the scene previously described. A jail that was serving as both an insane asylum and poor house was neither moral nor necessary. Her letter to the Sangamon Journal and State Register was intended to reach a large audience and convey these feelings. This letter was written with the citizens of Sangamon County as the audience. Unlike most “State” prisons that Dix attacked, this was a “County” jail, run solely by the residents of Sangamon County.

Dix hoped to persuade the residents of Springfield, and Sangamon County, to abandon this treatment of the poor. She even gives credit to the citizens of Sangamon County saying:

“I have said that the association of the criminal and charitable institutions of Sangamon county had been adduced through motives of economy. I add to this comment my opinion, that the citizens, generally are humane and liberal. Some of those who reside at the county seat (Springfield) have, within my own knowledge, manifested a spirit of benevolence, and are often active in the practical exercise of that disposition.” (Lightner p. 70)

What Dix is stating here is almost exactly what Stacey Robertson was saying in her keynote presentation. Benevolence and charitable work can spur bigger changes in one’s city, state, country, and even world. It is as if Dix is saying that she knows the people of Springfield and Sangamon County are better than this current treatment of the poor would indicate. Dix is making these “humane and liberal” people of Sangamon Country aware of the conditions in this prison. She is both giving the people credit while simultaneously promoting an alternative path for the citizens to take when dealing with their poor brethren.

            Dix goes on to argue that a “poor farm” system should instead be put into place in Sangamon Country. She cites the poor-house farm in Pike County as one “most worthy of imitation” (Lightner p. 71). Dix argues that simply placing a poor person in jail does nothing more than break that person’s spirit. She states:

“A light wooden fence encloses a yard in rear, of considerable size, which at present is an absolute nuisance, from being used, though, not exclusively, as a pen for hogs.” (Lightner, 71)

Dix is making it known that these poor people have broken no law, are now sitting in jail doing nothing constructive to better their lives, and sharing a backyard with hogs! If nothing else, it shows the little respect given to the impoverished people of the mid 19th century. Dix argues that these people should, at the very least, be given labor or work in an attempt to better their lives. No person can escape poverty when forced to live with animals.

            Using this in my classroom would be a great way to discuss “crime” as we know it. It would be very interesting to hear what 4th graders think a criminal is and what a suitable punishment for that person would be in today’s time. I would ask them if they thought that being “poor” should be a crime. In the mid 1800’s it certainly was viewed as a crime by the citizens of Sangamon Country. It would be a nice way to transition into talking about democracy. Asking tough questions like “Do you have to be making a decent living to be a good citizen?” or “Where would you go if you had no money or family?” would be great ways to begin talking citizenship. I could also see this being extended to lessons outside of the classroom through service-learning projects. It would be valuable to organize a can drive for a soup kitchen or a clothes collection campaign for the Salvation Army. Much like Dorothea Dix, one must join hands with their family, friends, neighbors, etc. to help out the poor. As she says:

“Social, moral, and religious obligations demand this: duty to one’s self, and duty to one’s neighbor, alike require fidelity in the conduct of the public business, whether reaching the charities of life, or embracing merely its civil provisions.” (Lightner 69)

By working as one and joining hands, we can begin to help those who have had their lives wiped away by poverty. A classroom of 24 students may be small in numbers, but it is a great place to start embracing those “civil provisions” that Dorothea Dix sought in 19th century Sangamon County!