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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: January 2021

3 - Uncertainty and Discretion: The Contours of Control at Eastern State Penitentiary

from Part I - Becoming the Deviant Prison: Establishing The Conditions for Personal Institutionalization


The necessity of defending the Pennsylvania System—an omnipresent reality at Eastern throughout the nineteenth century and a major cause of its personal institutionalization—was present from the beginning. By the late 1820s, several groups of Pennsylvanians would furiously debate what Eastern's regime should look like. This debate would be shaped not only by the legacy of past failures, but also by mounting criticism of pure solitary confinement (continuous solitary without distractions) as well as other developments beyond Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania System that was ultimately authorized at Eastern resulted from this contentious period. Forged in conflict, it was designed to achieve the original goals of the first prisons, but it was also designed reactively to avoid previous failures at Walnut Street Prison, Auburn State Prison, and Western State Penitentiary. Importantly, that this period would end with Pennsylvania deviating from the rest of the country was far from a foregone conclusion. For a while, it seemed that Pennsylvania might abandon its reformers' preference for continuous solitary confinement and copy New York's new approach to incarceration.