Rubin 2021

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Rubin, Ashley T. The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021.

When the modern prison first emerged in the early nineteenth century, the question of how such facilities should be designed, organized, and managed – tellingly referred to as “prison discipline” – was of paramount importance.


Under the Auburn System, prisoners worked in large factorylike rooms performing assembly-line labor, retreating at day’s end to cramped solitary cells. To prevent prisoners from communicating with each other, prisoners were required at all times to remain silent and to keep their eyes downcast.


Champions of the Auburn System argued that the rule of silence would prevent the types of conversations that allow prisoners’ mutual “contamination” and render prisons “schools of vice.” Hard labor would be reformative and instill discipline. Moreover, the Auburn System would be profitable for the state, which could sell prisoner-made goods to offset (at minimum) the costs of construction and maintenance, a particularly attractive feature for states with limited abilities to tax their citizens.


Pennsylvania followed a different model of prison discipline for most of that period. Under the Pennsylvania System, which was first implemented in 1829 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, prisoners were housed separately in cells large enough to work, sleep, pray, read, and exercise alone, without leaving except to walk in a small private yard attached to each cell.


were known by numbers only and, during any egress from their cells, prisoners were hooded to protect their identities even from guards.


According to supporters, the Pennsylvania System made it possible for prisoners to reenter society unrecognized and unimpeded by stigma.


Where the Auburn System relied on silence among congregated prisoners, the Pennsylvania System relied on full-time solitary confinement alleviated by intermittent contact with prison staff. Where the Auburn System worked prisoners together in large factories for more efficient production, the Pennsylvania System relied on less efficient workshop-style labor that offered prisoners vocational skills. Where the Auburn System used striped uniforms to mark its prisoners and paraded them around the prison in lockstep, the Pennsylvania System protected their prisoners’ identities with hoods and numbers so they could reenter society unstigmatized. Where the Auburn System whipped its prisoners for talking or failing to work enough, the Pennsylvania System used solitary confinement to remove the temptation to speak and, if prisoners refused to work, relied on boredom by with- holding their work until prisoners begged to work again. Contemporaries pithily summarized these differences by calling the Auburn System the “congregate” or “silent” system and the Pennsylvania System the “solitary” or “separate” system.


Reformers debated its merits against the Auburn System, and statesmen seriously considered it as an option when authorizing their new prisons, but the Pennsylvania System always remained the heterodox system. Outside of Pennsylvania, only Rhode Island and New Jersey adopted the Pennsylvania System for their state prisons before eventually abandoning it for the Auburn System.


7By 1869, even administrators at Eastern’s sister prison, the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, requested the legislature to allow them to congregate prisoners under the Auburn model.


The Pennsylvania System was officially abandoned at Eastern in 1913.


Eastern retained the Pennsylvania System longer than any other prison, even though it faced the largest share of the criticism for this retention. Even more surprising, when Eastern finally abandoned the Pennsylvania System, it did so after national support for the Auburn System itself had subsided. For these reasons alone, Eastern represents a fascinating prison whose curious history demands further explanation.


Traditional histories of the prison’s emergence have examined how changes in American society – its economy, political structure, culture, gender and racial relations – have encouraged, each in their own way, the early development of the prison.


While labor was important in all prisons, it played a different role when structuring life at Eastern. Thus, we cannot look to labor’s dominance and financial incentives to make sense of Eastern’s retention of the Pennsylvania System.


…whatever similarities we, a contemporary audience, see between these types of prisons, nineteenth- century penal actors took their differences seriously. Each system used solitary confinement, labor, and even corporal punishments despite its proclaimed enlightened and humane status. Nevertheless, differences in the types of solitary confinement, labor, and corporal punishments mattered greatly to supporters, opponents, and other observers at the time.


Most commonly, scholars assume or intimate that the Pennsylvania System’s longevity – as well as its initiation – at East- ern stemmed from religion. In an assumption that has taken on a mythlike quality, the Pennsylvania System is characterized as a niche approach to prison discipline that fit the unique social context of its innovator city and state.


While the Society of Friends played a powerful role in penal reform during the Early Republic (and continue to be active penal reformers


today), they have received too much credit (or blame) for the early use of solitary confinement. Indeed, their greatest impacts came from supporting incarceration generally (rather than solitary confinement specifically) as an alternative to capital and corporal punishments.


What each of these explanations overlooks most substantially is the difficulty the state of Pennsylvania – the legislators, governors, penal reformers, and (more than anyone else) Eastern’s administrators – faced by maintaining the Pennsylvania System. Pennsylvania, and ultimately Eastern, was alone in its reliance on what was essentially full-time solitary confinement: this isolation presented multiple challenges.


With no external model to follow in a period full of anxiety about the prison as a new technology – and intense apprehension about the consequences to mind and body of long-term confinement, in solitary or not – admin- istrators had to muddle through and make their own decisions about translating law into action, theory into practice.


An open and routine violation of increasingly solidified national norms about prison discipline, Eastern’s reliance on the Pennsylvania System made it not only a unique prison, but also a heavily criticized prison. Stated otherwise, Eastern was a deviant prison.


In the narrative that follows, I demonstrate that Eastern’s administrators were the driving force behind their prison’s exceptional retention of the Pennsylvania System.


…when the Pennsylvania System finally ended at Eastern in the 1870s, the adminis- trators did not publicly acknowledge its demise. It was merely a formality when an entirely different generation of Eastern’s administrators publicly requested an end to the Pennsylvania System in the early twentieth century.


Ultimately, I argue that Eastern’s administrators defended the Pennsylvania System (rather than giving in to pressures to conform to national trends) because the system offered them something – the means to claim a unique status – that was not available under the Auburn System.


The personal institutionalization of the Pennsylvania System was thus simultaneously caused by, and offered a counterforce to the challenges of deviance.


Maintaining and defending the Pennsylvania System offered Eastern’s administrators attention, status, prestige, and a unique and vaunted identity as benevolent gentlemen managing the country’s only humanitarian prison – in their minds, at least. Ultimately, Eastern’s administrators resisted any effort to abandon or change the Pennsylvania System, even when other models seemed to be technologically superior, because it provided them with a unique status unobtainable under any other system of prison discipline.


However, by the 1870s, the Pennsylvania System no longer offered the same benefits it had in the 1830s and 1840s. The Auburn–Pennsylvania debate subsided in the 1850s, especially after the most vociferous critic of the Pennsylvania System, the lead organizer of the Boston Prison Dis- cipline Society, passed away in 1854 and national attention shifted away from penal reform in the years immediately prior to the Civil War.


… or separate confine- ment.”When the state legislature finally authorized prisoner congregation at Eastern in 1913, the Pennsylvania System was a distant memory: East- ern’s administrators did not acknowledge the legal change in their report for that year.