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The Conclusion reviews the key themes of the book and relates it to the larger literature and our current context. It reviews the lessons Eastern offers for nineteenth-century prison history, for the analysis of prison administration more generally, and for contemporary punishment. Importantly, this chapter relates the importance of recognition for early nineteenth-century penal reformers and prison administrators to the anxiety of penal reform. The chapter closes by contrasting the Pennsylvania System with the current punitive climate and asking what lessons its failure to spread beyond Pennsylvania provide for those seeking penal change.
This chapter examines two strategies Eastern's administrators used in their annual reports to challenge one of the most effective—and personally detrimental—myths: the Pennsylvania System’s cruelty and inhumanity. To undermine this myth, Eastern's administrators used several techniques of neutralization, characterizing the Pennsylvania System and themselves as a kind, benevolent, and humane, while arguing that the Auburn System’s supporters were the opposite—profit mongers willing to resort to cruel practices. These techniques allowed the administrators to defend themselves against charges that they were engaging in cruel and inhumane behavior. Because of their defensive posture the administrators could sublimate their own self-praise into the prison’s defense. Thus, administrators' statements defending the Pennsylvania System were often as much about the administrators themselves as the system they sought to defend. Indeed, the ability to constantly issue these statements incentivized Eastern's administrators to maintain the Pennsylvania System for as long as they did. These claims were the largest anchor keeping the Pennsylvania System personally institutionalized.
From the very beginning, Eastern’s administrators’ autonomy was challenged directly by occasional incursions from the local penal reformers and indirectly by the state legislature's lackluster patronage. These challenges became more invasive in the 1850s, peaking in the 1860s. In response, Eastern's administrators sought to establish jurisdiction over their prison by proclaiming their own special expertise and insisting on deference in matters affecting Eastern. By the 1870s, however, penal actors on the national stage were likewise proclaiming their own expertise and professional status, while Eastern's administrators felt increasingly irrelevant. In response to these national-level developments, the administrators further developed their claims to professional status. In this context, the administrators' claims to professional status provided them a more promising path to self-aggrandizement than continuing to proclaim the Pennsylvania System's superiority. Consequently, the administrators shifted their focus from the Pennsylvania System to their status as professional penologists. It was this shift from defense to professionalization that deinstitutionalized the Pennsylvania System.
This chapter describes what the Pennsylvania System looked like in practice, focusing on deviations from the Pennsylvania System's idealized regimen that its administrators vehemently defended. Quite at odds with their extensive public proclamations of their system's excellence, the administrators often subverted the Pennsylvania System's ultimate goals or directly broke its most central rules. This chapter explains the administrators' apparently paradoxical behavior by demonstrating that these deviations were part of an effort to reduce the Pennsylvania System's vulnerability to further criticism. Their management decisions at the prison were intensely pragmatic, guided not by a perfect belief in the Pennsylvania System or even penological goals, but by the desire to reduce expenses and prevent insanity—the Pennsylvania System's biggest weaknesses according to its critics. The administrators sought to prevent manifestations of the calumnious myths so they could continue to claim their system's superiority and protect their own status as benevolent, humane gentlemen running a model prison—a status that kept the Pennsylvania System personally institutionalized at Eastern.
America's early prisons—first the proto-prisons built after the American Revolution and the modern prisons built in the 1820s and later—failed repeatedly and dramatically. These failures and the debates they precipitated gave modern prisons a perennial air of uncertainty. Would they solve the problems endemic to the proto-prisons—and serve the prison's original purpose? Moreover, news of penal failures like Auburn often had sudden and unpredictable impacts on the penal imagination and what commentators believed to be acceptable design choices for the new prisons. In the resulting atmosphere, deviations from the norm seemed even more risky and penal actors routinely sought assurance that they were on the right path. Thus, it is only by understanding this tumultuous, unstable beginning—when reformers repeatedly experimented with variations of prison and failed—that we can begin to understand how Eastern became a deviant prison and how the Pennsylvania System could become personally institutionalized at Eastern in the decades to follow.
The annual reports represent the principal medium through which the administrators presented and defended their embattled prison against claims that the Pennsylvania System was expensive, cruel and inhumane, ineffective, and impracticable. These claims defended both the Pennsylvania System and the men who implemented it. In challenging the myths’ veracity, Eastern's administrators relied on what criminologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza call “techniques of neutralization,” a series of accounts of their behavior that challenge the fact of, or mitigate responsibility or blame for, immoral or inappropriate behavior. This chapter explores three such strategies: changing how they described the Pennsylvania System, denying the existence of bad outcomes, and denying the system's responsibility for bad outcomes that did occur by placing the blame on others. Ultimately, these techniques of neutralization enabled Eastern's administrators to neutralize the pains of deviance and sustain the Pennsylvania System despite the criticism. Defending against the myths in this way also created a context for the Pennsylvania System to become personally institutionalized for Eastern's administrators.
Eastern was far from exceptional in the level of prison administrators' autonomy and inexperience, but two factors distinguished the administration at Eastern from that at other prisons. First, Pennsylvania did not employ contractors to run their prisons; consequently, the men in charge at Eastern saw themselves as trusted caretakers of the prison rather than men motivated by the promise of profit. Second, as some commentators recognized, Eastern's administrators were particularly active. More than mere figureheads, they had greater control than at other prisons—and they took advantage of this greater control. It was, in effect, their prison, a feeling of ownership and responsibility that will become clear in the following chapters. This chapter introduces the administrative and legal framework that provided a group of largely untrained and inexperienced men with tremendous control over Eastern and especially the difficult, and sometimes evasive, task of translating the Pennsylvania System into practice. It was this group of men for whom the Pennsylvania System became personally institutionalized and who would fight to maintain it at Eastern.
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.