Throughout the course of the 19th century, the definition of who the criminal man was influenced the way he was treated. Whether theorists could identify the criminal along biological, social or psychological terms influenced prison policy on how to turn crime doers away from their lives of evil. In fact, reform was the ultimate goal of the 19th century penitentiary. It was for this reason that policy makers were so adamant in aligning the way criminals were treated with their perceptions of how ‘the criminal’ came to be. If the criminal is simply, as classical theorists would suggest, a rational man, then to force him to contemplate his actions will reform him. If, however, he is biologically pre-disposed to commit crimes, harsher reform strategies need to be taken. We will analyze those strategies taken within the context of the New York State penitentiary, Sing Sing Prison and its predecessor Auburn Prison.
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.