THE REFORM OF THE ASYLUM: Conscience and Convenience in Progressive America by David J. Rothman
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THE REFORM OF THE ASYLUM: Conscience and Convenience in Progressive America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Rothman carries the story he began in The Discovery of the Asylum--on the 19th-century origins of prisons and asylums--through the extensive reforms of the Progressive era to our own day. Progressives, unlike their Jacksonian predecessors, regarded the interests of individual (whether criminal, juvenile delinquent, or mental patient) and community as one, Rothman points out, but for all their anti-institutional talk, he finds, they mainly reshaped institutions to impose the community on the still incarcerated individual. Yet their emphasis was upon individual treatment, so that discretion (with all its predictable abuses of race and class prejudice) supplanted hard and fast rules at every level of criminal justice administration and mental-health service. New practices such as parole, probation, and indeterminate sentences, and new institutions such as the juvenile court and the ""psychopathic"" hospital were introduced for reasons of conscience but endured for reasons of convenience to one group or another. And despite yawning gaps between Progressive rhetoric and the reality of their programs, reformers never seriously questioned their own intentions or methods. Rothman does, in detailed examinations of criminal and juvenile justice and mental health and in a harrowing portrait of two years in the institutional life of the Norfolk (Mass.) Prison Colony--a precipitous skid from high ideals to bread and water in the hole. He concludes that ""Progressive innovations,"" often mere ""add-ons,"" ""may well have done less to upgrade dismal conditions than. . . to create nightmares of their own."" But the prospects are not altogether grim, for Rothman's analysis (unlike Foucault's) suggests that real change (informed by mistakes of history) is possible in our ""post-Progressive"" age. A valuable and fascinating, if disheartening, account of ""ignorant kindness"" and ever-such-good intentions gone astray.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1980
Publisher: Little, Brown