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Institutionalizing the Pennsylvania System: Organizational Exceptionalism, Administrative Support, and Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829-1875


I examine the puzzling case of Eastern State Penitentiary and its long-term retention of a unique mode of confinement between 1829 and 1875. Most prisons built in the nineteenth century followed the "Auburn System" of congregate confinement in which inmates worked daily in factory-like settings and retreated at night to solitary confinement. By contrast, Eastern State Penitentiary (f. 1829, Philadelphia) followed the "Pennsylvania System" of separate confinement in which each inmate was confined to his own cell for the duration of his sentence, engaging in workshop-style labor and receiving religious ministries, education, and visits from selected personnel. Between 1829 and the 1860s, Eastern faced strong pressures to conform to field-wide norms and adopt the Auburn System. As the progenitor of the Pennsylvania System, Eastern became the target of a debate raging over the appropriate model of "prison discipline." Supporters of the Auburn System (penal reformers and other prisons' administrators) propagated calumnious myths, arguing that the Pennsylvania System was cruel and inhumane, dangerous to inmates' physical and mental health, too expensive, and simply impractical and ineffective. Largely as a result of these myths, only three other prisons followed this model, including another prison in Pennsylvania, Western State Penitentiary. However, by the Civil War, all three prisons abandoned the System in practice and then formally rejected it, citing the manifestation of the myths at their prisons. Eastern maintained its allegiance. Even after overcrowding struck in 1866, making separation for all inmates impossible, Eastern's administrators continued to aspire to their Pennsylvania System.

In the years after the Civil War, the Auburn-Pennsylvania debate faded and penal reformers moved on to new issues. The carceral field grew less isomorphic (homogeneous) as new facilities (adult reformatories in the North and plantation-style prisons in the South) emerged. The Auburn System itself had to evolve as new challenges emerged. The earlier pressures to conform had declined by the late 1870s. Ironically, it was in this context that Eastern effectively, but quietly, abandoned the Pennsylvania System. While legislative authorization continued until 1913, the Pennsylvania System was virtually unrecognizable at Eastern by the late 1870s as administrators sought to deal with an ever-growing prison population by double-celling inmates in violation of the principle of separate confinement to which they subscribed.

As one of the first modern prisons, the progenitor of a distinctive mode of confinement, and an exception to the historical trend, Eastern is one of the most famous prisons in penal history. However, its lengthy and exceptional retention of the Pennsylvania System remains significantly under-theorized. Instead, scholars have largely sought to explain Eastern's initial adoption of the Pennsylvania System, focusing on the unique features of that system (e.g., Dumm, 1987; Rothman, 1971; Rusche and Kirchheimer, 1939; see also Meranze, 1996). This study seeks to determine how and why the Pennsylvania System remained the model of confinement at Eastern despite pressures that encouraged conformity to a different model of confinement. I employ historical content analyses of archival materials consisting of a wide range of primary-source documents relating to the prison. These documents include Eastern's widely circulated Annual Reports to the legislature, private documents maintained by Eastern personnel and penal reformers that reveal actual practice at Eastern, and penal reform literature and penal legislation from across the United States that provide insights into the pressures from the field.

I find that the most important factor behind the Pennsylvania System's longevity at Eastern was the long-lasting support of its administrators (administrative support). While local penal reformers were useful in maintaining the statutory authorization of the Pennsylvania System and defending it against criticism from the field, they had little influence over public or private organizational behavior at Eastern. Moreover, legislative authorization was likely only minimally significant as the authority of the legislature, including actual legislation, was often disregarded by prison administrators, who saw themselves as the proper authority on penological matters. Thus, available countervailing forces were quite weak and unlikely to have played a significant role in overcoming pressures towards conformity. Apparently promising contextual explanations, moreover, fall apart upon investigation. Counterfactual evidence provides the most promising guidance: The lack of administrative support at other prisons that adopted the Pennsylvania System was highly significant in its failure at those prisons. At Eastern, by contrast, prison administrators maintained constant support of the Pennsylvania System&mdashoften in ways that mitigated against the same factors that led other prisons' administrators to abandon the Pennsylvania System for more efficient methods. Through vehement rhetorical defenses, Eastern's administrators countered the veracity of reformers' unflattering myths. Administrators also imposed strategic marginal alterations of the Pennsylvania System, manipulating features of their system to reduce its vulnerability to manifestations of the calumnious myths. Through these two tactics, they protected the Pennsylvania System at Eastern from factors that caused its demise at other prisons.

Why did Eastern's administrators expend this effort to protect an unpopular system of prison discipline? I suggest that retaining the Pennsylvania System at Eastern offered administrators particular benefits that overcame the challenges associated with exceptionalism. Specifically, I argue that the Pennsylvania System had become institutionalized (Selznick, 1949, 1957) at Eastern in the sense that it was meaningful to Eastern's administrators beyond its utility as a basic set of instructions regarding how to incarcerate criminals to achieve their reformation, deterrence, or punishment. Instead, the Pennsylvania System offered administrators certain phenomenological benefits (Whetten, 2006) such that it was in their interest to maintain and publicly defend the Pennsylvania System. First, as a distinctive structure increasingly unique to Eastern, the Pennsylvania System offered administrators a status identity both indirectly (through their affiliation with and endorsement of a system they described as humanitarian and generally superior to alternatives) and directly (through their claims of their own benevolence and professional expertise). Importantly, these sources of status identity were only available if administrators retained the Pennsylvania System, and they were strengthened through administrators' rhetorical defenses of the Pennsylvania System. Moreover, affirming this status identity may have alleviated existential anxiety among administrators, who faced normative criticism from the field. Second, protecting the public image of the Pennsylvania System constituted an imperative for administrative decision making when actual implementation proved problematic. When faced with conflicting goals, vague instructions that failed to cover all eventualities, and material challenges to implementation, the need to protect the Pennsylvania System&mdashto make it look good, to preserve it at Eastern&mdashoffered clarity. Having this imperative may have alleviated epistemic anxiety among administrators, who faced exacerbated levels of uncertainty from the ambiguities in their goals and technology and no guidance (no external model) from the field. Thus, the status identity and imperative rendered the Pennsylvania System valuable to Eastern's administrators, despite the challenges. Indeed, administrative support continued until the Pennsylvania System no longer provided these benefits. By the 1870s, the field had moved on: the debate was over, as was the need to defend the Pennsylvania System&mdashthe Pennsylvania System had clearly lost&mdashand it was no longer a source of distinction. While administrators retained the name, they began to change the core of the principle. No longer infused with value, the Pennsylvania System became expendable.

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