Patuxent Institution: An American Experiment in Corrections

James Raymond Coldren, Jr., John Howard Assn. for Prison Reform


Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security prison located 15 miles south of the City of Baltimore, Maryland, is the nation's most intriguing and most experimental prison. It has been called the nation's most sued correctional facility (Carney 1985, 4). In years past, Patuxent was a place an inmate could be sent by the courts with an indeterminate sentence, to be released when the prison treatment staff determined it was safe to send you back to society, even if that meant you would stay in prison past the length of the sentence handed down by the courts. The prospect of such a sentence, coupled with the lack of information about how the prison operated, created a state of ignorance and uncertainty, for justice system professionals as well as inmates and their families, that eventually became intolerable. In 1976, the law authorizing Patuxent's existence and practices changed (it changed again in 1990), and Patuxent Institution became what it is today -- a prison that inmates volunteer for, where treatment programs are available and the hope of rehabilitation exists. Patuxent has changed in significant ways since 1976. Its programs have changed; the inmates allowed in have changed. It is now a co-education facility housing both male and female adult inmates, as well as incarcerated youths of both genders. It offers mental health programming for inmates preparing to go back to society, or to go back to the regular prison population after a mental health crisis. It offers special drug treatment for women. It offers educational programs ranging from traditional schooling to keyboarding classes to horticulture classes. Patuxent is unique in other important ways. Patuxent operates its own 'mini' correctional system, with its own admissions, inmate review, and paroling functions separate from the Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) in Maryland. Both Patuxent and the DOC exist side-by-side within the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and significant links exist between the two systems, but Patuxent operates independently, with a different mission, different resources, and a different approach to the business of inmate correction. A prison (or a correctional system), as a public organization, receives legitimacy from the society that surrounds it and more directly from the political bodies in its external environment, perhaps most directly from the legislature that appropriates its funds, presumably in the public interest. If Patuxent Institution still exists as a treatment?providing prison, how has it managed to survive when the general public, the political climate, and its legislature question rehabilitation as a legitimate goal for a prison? In one sense, Patuxent is an anomaly, an irregular or chance occurrence among prisons in this conservative era, or in any era. On the other hand, Patuxent's long history of conflict and confrontation with the public and legislature, and the fact that it still exists as a correctional institution, suggest that we look for another explanation. As one of the most controversial prisons in America's history, Patuxent fought and survived several major legal and legitimacy battles in its time. This paper examines the adaptive behavior of Patuxent Institution, which has survived the conservative trend in politics and the administra-tion of criminal justice over the last 20 to 30 years. The analysis is based on an historical case study of Patuxent that identified key legitimacy crises in the history of the organization and conducted research to explore, in-depth, the actors, decisions, external influences, and outcomes of each legitimacy crises. Using the grounded theory approach, a theory of Patuxent's adaptive process is explained. The question of Patuxent's survival and adaptation touches on many aspects of the sociology of complex organizations??organization creation, development, structure, and culture; organization environment, and organization-environment interactions; adaptive strategies; institutionalization; the political economy of public organizations; and external influences on organizations. This research examines these issues for the case of Patuxent Institution and answers questions regarding how adaptive mechanisms operate to insure survival for a public organization such as Patuxent.

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Updated 05/20/2006