Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of the Modern Penal System, 1829–1913
Your prisoners will go insane—or die! Your prison is too expensive! Your system is cruel and it doesn’t even
work! These critiques were hurled at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary throughout the antebellum period. State-run facilities for incarceration as punishment were, as yet, a recent invention of the post-revolutionary period: reformers and prison administrators were still working out the kinks. Nevertheless, starting in the 1820s, modern state prisons opened en masse across the United States—North and South, coastal and frontier states alike—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 (briefly) two other states, maintained prisoners in “separate confinement” or solitary confinement for the duration of their prison sentences; eventually, Eastern alone followed this method. The “Pennsylvania System” was too reminiscent of earlier experiments with solitary confinement in which prisoners quickly decompensated, some mutilating their bodies, others committing suicide. It seemed to many reformers and statesmen an inhumane throwback while the Auburn System offered the promise of profits from prisoner labor. An outlier, and the subject of immense criticism, why did Eastern State Penitentiary continue to employ its Pennsylvania System for nearly five decades?
In this book, I revive the “Old” Institutional theory of Philip Selznick and focus attention on prison administrators’ role in shaping state-level penal policy. While state legislators were ambivalent and local reformers favored altering the Pennsylvania System, Eastern’s administrators alone remained committed. 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, administrators 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. The system was officially abandoned in 1913 after more than four decades of disuse.
While Eastern State Penitentiary was an outlier for its time, its history offers useful insights into early prison history and it remains relevant today. Debates over prison discipline, as well as Eastern’s administrators public and private reaction to the criticism they faced, reveal intense anxieties over the new prisons. At Eastern, and to varying degrees elsewhere, reformers and administrators worried about whether the prisons would function as anticipated, about how human beings undergoing new forms of confinement would be affected both physically and mentally, and about whether what they had authorized as reformers or implemented as administrators was morally acceptable. Although previous scholars have described the prison as a response to anxieties over social change, this study explores the anxieties harbored by supporters of the prison about the prison itself, suggesting the prison’s place during one of its most enthusiastic periods was less firm than previously understood.
Image Source: Vaux, R. 1872. Brief Sketch of the Origin and History of the State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: McLaughlin Brothers, Printers.
Eastern and the Pennsylvania System offer a significant contrast to how punishment is structured now. Without overemphasizing the soft side of what was still a very painful and dangerous punishment, the Pennsylvania System—with its emphasis on prisoners’ privacy, in-prison programming, disease prevention, and post-release material assistance—was intended to help society by helping, not hindering or simply punishing, prisoners. Although Eastern is often mistaken for the world’s first “supermax” prison, its contrast with contemporary practices is a striking reminder that our current taste for harsh punishment is not natural or permanent, but contingent and changeable.
As prisons take on increasing importance in the modern era, and reformers, politicians, and practitioners search for alternatives to institutionalized policies and practices, however, this organizational account of Eastern’s history reminds readers of the quieter obstacles to change—the personal commitments that can develop to outmoded technologies and the complicated motivations that emerge for people who find their work in the spotlight. Ultimately, Eastern’s history offers a cautionary tale for future reformers, illustrating how organizational settings change even the most reform-minded individuals once placed in managerial roles.
Look for The Deviant Prison in early 2021 at Cambridge University Press, amazon, or your favorite bookseller. (Orders through the Cambridge website can be discounted by 20% by entering the code RUBIN2021, expires Dec. 31, 2021.)
Here are some videos of Q&As and presentations I’ve given on The Deviant Prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the early prisons:
- Presentation and Q&A at the American Philosophical Society (March 31, 2021)
- Presentation and Q&A: In Conversation with Cecelia Cancellaro at the Cambridge History Festival (January 21, 2021)
- Q&A: Invited Guest, “Unpacking the Origins of America’s Modern Prison System: A Conversation with Ashley T. Rubin,” Searchlight Series at Eastern State Penitentiary (January 5, 2021)
For some of my work related to this project, see also:
- The Birth of the Penal Organization: Why Prisons Were Born to Fail (in The Legal Process and the Promise of Justice, 2019)
- Professionalization as Strategy and Identity at Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829–1875 (Law & Social Inquiry, 2016)
- A Neo-Institutional Account of Prison Diffusion (Law & Society Review, 2015)
- Three Waves of American Penal Development, 1790-1920 (Punishment and Incarceration: A Global Perspective, 2014)
For more books on the origins of U.S. prisons, see my recommendations on Shepherd.com!