Late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century prisons were places of unbridled misconduct, overcrowding, illicit activity, and disease. Ironically, within prisons constructed before germ theory, the push for solitary confinement was not affected by the knowledge that human contact spreads disease; rather, the purpose of constructing individual cells was to prevent the spread of moral disease from inmate to inmate. The notion that constant silence and solitude can instill virtue, although it seems draconian, was a driving force behind penal reform that inspired the construction of silent and separate prisons around the world. A prison that was both silent and separate forbade communication between inmates, or speech in general, and housed each inmate in his or her own cell. Comparison of varying silent and separate prison systems gives context to reform taking place specifically within prisons such as Sing Sing.
The 1842 construction of Pentonville Model Prison in north London coincided with an era of prison reform in the United States that favored both silent and separate penal institutions. Designed in the exact style of American silent prisons, Pentonville was meant to model the enforcement of silence for numerous other English prisons. The Penitentiary Act of 1779 in England sought to usher in an era of uniformity among prisons by standardizing cell size and lodging prisoners in separate spaces, creating an overall “sterile and silent environment” that would stamp out the spread of vice. Pentonville is an example of an English prison that, among others, was part of an exchange during which American and English prison reform and architectural movements informed one another. It can be understood as one of the prime English counterparts to American silent prisons that promoted architectural change to make their inmates virtuous; it is thus a valuable tool for comparison with American silent prisons such as Eastern, Auburn, and Sing Sing.