The reformatory movement concerned changing ideas about the role and function of prisons and the criminal justice system in general during the 19th century. Beginning first in England, and later moving to the United States, this movement promoted the idea of prisons being places for individual offenders to be "reformed" rather than simply punished. Ideally, these types of institutions would be focused on changing the behaviors of people for the positive, ensuring that they would not reoffend after their release and having a beneficial effect on both the offender and society at large. These ideas for prison reform emerged in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, when ideas about the natural rights of human beings and the role of government began to change, and the type of inhumane prison conditions that were common at the time came to be seen as not fitting for an enlightened, civilized society. Unfortunately, these high ideals were rarely, if ever, realized.
Across societies, both in Britain and the United States during the nineteenth century, these reformatories were mostly filled with poor or working-class men and women. Social and economic class had a strong influence on whether or not someone would be sent to a reformatory. Generally speaking, the wealthier you were, the less likely it would be that you would be suspected, prosecuted, and convicted of a crime. The reasons for this were many and complex, including the economic and psychological pressures of poverty, which led to high rates of crime in poorer areas, as well as the benefits of good legal representation available to people of higher economic and social status. There is also a general bias in favor of those of higher economic and social status (both within the criminal justice system and society at large), especially during the time of the Industrial Revolution when there was a belief that economic success was a sign that a person had a good character, while poverty was a sign of some moral failing. These and other sociological factors led to people on the lower end of the economic spectrum being prosecuted and sent to reformatories at a high higher rate than their wealthy counterparts.
For example, in late-nineteenth century England, the son of a member of the aristocracy living on an estate, and the son of a poor laborer living in the slums of London had very different likelihoods of ending up in a reformatory. By and large, these institutions, which were truly not much of an improvement over what had come before, were filled with those of a lower economic and social status. Spending time in any sort of prison or reformatory would not decrease the likelihood of an individual committing other crimes and being sent back; in fact it often increased those chances. Reformatories were still largely places of control, violence, and punishment, whatever the ideas behind their creation had been. If you were a wealthy person, you were far less likely to ever see the inside of a reformatory, something which still is true today with the modern prison system in America.