Organizational Analyses of Nineteenth-Century Prisons

By focusing on the organizational and field-level developments that shape penal trends and penal practice, I highlight a different set of factors than those traditionally used to explain punishment. For decades, punishment scholars have emphasized societal factors—economics, politics, diversity, race and class hierarchies, gender relations, etc.—to explain changes in punishment. While these factors have been essential for conveying that punishment is not simply a reflection of crime rates or objective “needs” for punishment from a technocratic standpoint, scholars have prioritized factors external to the penal system. By looking at organizational factors, the role of administrators, and the legacy of failure from earlier punishments, we see that internal factors are actually just as important, and sometimes more important, than macro-level social factors in explaining punishment.

(Book Project) The Deviant Prison: Eastern State Penitentiary and the Advantage of Difference, 1829–1913

Your prisoners will become insane or die! Your prison is too expensive! Your system is cruel and it doesn’t even work! These were the main critiques hurled at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary throughout the antebellum period. Incarceration as punishment was yet a recent invention of the post-revolutionary period, its kinks still being worked out. Nevertheless, starting in the 1820s, modern state prisons opened en masse across the United States, their adoption largely complete by the Civil War. Most of these prisons followed the Auburn System of factory-style labor by day and solitary confinement by night. Only Pennsylvania, and temporarily two other states, maintained prisoners in “separate confinement” or solitary confinement for the duration of their prison sentences. Unlike contemporary “super-max” prisons, solitary confinement at Eastern was alleviated by routine visits from the prison personnel and local reformers, workshop-style labor, and periods of exercise in a small, attached, walled-in yard. In the antebellum period, however, this model was too reminiscent of earlier experiments in which prisoners held in solitary quickly decompensated, some mutilating their bodies, others committing suicide—an association constantly reaffirmed by interested penal reformers who supported the Auburn System. The “Pennsylvania System,” as these reformers and other commentators argued, was an inhumane throwback while the Auburn System offered the promise of profits from prisoner labor. An outlier, and the subject of immense criticism, why would Eastern State Penitentiary continue to employ its Pennsylvania System for nearly five decades?

In this book, I revisit the rapid and widespread adoption of the prison in the antebellum period and re-examine the history of one of America’s most famous prisons. Focusing primarily on the decades after the modern prison’s “invention,” I argue that the Auburn System was propelled across the United States from a combination of uncertainty, calumnious myths about the Pennsylvania System, and states’ understanding of legitimate statecraft. These pressures also encouraged New Jersey State Prison, Rhode Island State Prison, and Pennsylvania’s Western State Penitentiary—the few prisons beside Eastern to adopt the Pennsylvania System—to abandon it in favor of the Auburn System. In the process of this examination, I illustrate the importance of prison administrators in shaping state-level penal policy. Indeed, administrators were integral to Eastern’s long-term reliance on the Pennsylvania System. By publicly defending the Pennsylvania System against reformers’ criticisms, and privately altering the system to reduce its vulnerability to further attack, Eastern’s administrators preserved the system at Eastern.

Reviving the “Old” Institutional theory of Philip Selznick, I argue that the Pennsylvania System became “institutionalized,” providing its administrators a unique position within the emerging penal field. Though heavily criticized, they were nevertheless the center of attention, corresponding with leading penal reformers from across the Atlantic World and receiving visits from foreign dignitaries, other states’ prison administrators and penal reformers, and thousands of others flocking to see Philadelphia’s prison experiment. Importantly, the need to defend Eastern provided its administrators the platform and opportunity to describe themselves as benevolent, humanitarian, progressive, and eventually professional gentlemen. However, as the debate over penal reform shifted from the Auburn–Pennsylvania divide to new questions about reformatories and early release policies, the Pennsylvania System no longer provided Eastern’s administrators a legitimate means of self-promotion. Instead, in the years after the Civil War, they increasingly focused on securing their own professional status, describing themselves as experts and professional social scientists, and wrestling with other leaders in the nascent field of penology for status. With this new source of status and identity, Eastern’s administrators finally let the Pennsylvania System succumb to post-war overcrowding and silently abandoned the system they had previously defended so vigorously.

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