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Magdalene asylums, also known as Magdalene laundries, were institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house "fallen women", a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution. Asylums operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the last one closing in 1996. The institutions were named after the Biblical character Mary Magdalene, in earlier centuries characterised as a reformed prostitute.
The first Magdalen institution was founded in late 1758 in Whitechapel, England, which led to the establishment of a similar institution in Ireland by 1767. The first Magdalene asylum in the United States was the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1800; other North American cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto, quickly followed suit. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Magdalen asylums were common in several countries. By 1900, there were more than 300 asylums in England and more than 20 in Scotland.
There are no precise figures for the number of girls who worked in the eight Magdalene laundries, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, in twentieth-century Australia because Good Shepherd has not released their records. As a result of the 2004 Senate report "Forgotten Australians" it is known that the Good Shepherd laundries in Australia acted as prisons for the girls who were forced to labor in workhouses laundering linen for local hospitals or commercial premises. The report also described the conditions as characterized by inedible food, unhygienic living conditions and little or no education. In 2008, Senator Andrew Murray likened the Convent of the Good Shepherd 'The Pines', Adelaide to a prisoner-of-war camp.
A network of asylums across Canada were operated by the Congregation of the Sisters of Misericorde, which was founded in 1848. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: "In receiving patients no discrimination is made in regard to religion, colour, or nationality. After their convalescence, those who desire to remain in the home are placed under a special sister and are known as 'Daughters of St. Margaret'. They follow a certain rule of life but contract no religious obligations. Should they desire to remain in the convent, after a period of probation, they are allowed to become Magdalens and eventually make the vows of the Magdalen institute." The order also ran several other types of institutions, including some in the United States.
The first Magdalen institution, Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes, was founded in late 1758 in London and was active to 1966.
An estimated 30,000 women were confined in Irish asylums. The first asylum in Ireland opened on Leeson Street in Dublin in 1765, founded by Lady Arabella Denny. The last Irish asylum closed in 1996. In Belfast, in Northern Ireland, the Church of Ireland-run Ulster Magdalene Asylum was founded in 1839, while parallel institutions were run by Catholics and Presbyterians.
A mass grave containing 155 corpses was discovered in 1993 at the grounds of a former convent in Dublin. This eventually led to media revelations about the operations of the secretive institutions. A formal state apology was issued in 2013, and a £50 million compensation scheme was set up. The Vatican and the four religious institutes that ran the Irish asylums have refused to compensate the survivors of abuse, despite demands from the Irish government, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture.
The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film by Peter Mullan, is based on historical facts about four young women incarcerated in a Dublin Magdalen Laundry from 1964 to 1968.
Senator Martin McAleese report on the Laundries glossed over details of the abuse. In 2013 the BBC did a special investigation, Sue Lloyd Roberts "Demanding justice for women and children abused by Irish nuns."  The Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity, have ignored requests by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture to contribute to the compensation fund for victims including 600 still alive in March 2014.
Asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement, many women entered and left the institutions of their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, that the women in Philadelphia's asylum "sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances." In its early years, the Magdalen Society Asylum functioned as a refuge for prostitutes. Most of these stayed only a few days or a few weeks, just long enough to get reclothed and recuperated. Attempts at rehabilitation met with little success. In 1877, the asylum was changed into a home for wayward girls, with a rule requiring a stay for twelve months. As the Magdalen Society Asylum became more selective, relaxed its emphasis on personal guilt and salvation, and standardized in some respects the treatment of the inmates, its rate of failure diminished.
The Female Penitent's Refuge Society of Boston was incorporated in 1823.
New York's Magdalen Society was established in 1830 with the purpose of rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice— sometimes kidnapping them from brothels. In 1907 a new home was established in the Inwood section of Manhattan. This was the second time the Society found it necessary to move to a larger facility. Many of the young women who passed through the doors of the Inwood institution had worked the taverns, brothels and alleyways of lower Manhattan before being “rescued” by the Society. Girls were generally committed for a period of three years. Through the years several girls died or were injured climbing out of windows in failed escape attempts. In 1917 the Magdalen Benevolent Society changed its name to Inwood House. In the early 1920s bichloride of mercury was commonly used to treat new arrivals for venereal disease, resulting in a number of cases of mercury poisoning. The property was later sold and the agency relocated. Inwood House continues to operate, with its main focus on teen pregnancy.