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.
Dominated by Sir Joshua Jebb, Pentonville’s construction was at the forefront of the English reform movement to use architecture to reform the souls of inmates. Jebb, an advocate of the silent system and designer of Pentonville, became the first Surveyor General of Prisons in England in 1844. As Surveyor General, Jebb had the ability to dictate how prison administrators would discipline and manage inmates, as well as how prisons would be structured. Jebb used his power to build prisons whose architecture he hoped would prevent communication and the spread of vice. He viewed Pentonville as a mode by which to reform souls, through forced isolation and reflection and in compact and sparsely furnished cells. Growing support for silent and separate prisons like Pentonville was due in part to the failure of other, less organized institutions to control inmate behavior.
Before late eighteenth-century reformers like Jebb encouraged the use of architecture to instill virtue in inmates, the twelfth-century institution of Newgate was England’s most ill-managed and “notorious prison,” one that was considered by reformers to be an architectural failure. Newgate’s structure was not deliberately related to its intended reformative function, a connection that later prison plans would attempt to establish. Instead, Newgate’s facade was indistinguishable from that of a gated city and was surrounded by a wall as many small settlements at the time would have been. Inside, prisoners were often left unsupervised and the silent system was not observed. Inmates held an inordinate amount of control over prison administrators and thus prison life, making Newgate a place of utter chaos for hundreds of years until its demolition in 1904.
Newgate’s disorder made it vastly different from Pentonville. Robin Evans, scholar of prison architecture and author of The Fabrication of Virtue, says of Pentonville, “Everything about it had been conceived with forethought, care and precision for the purpose of amending the criminal mind.” Late eighteenth-century American penal reform, from which Jebb drew inspiration, “regularized” imprisonment and added a moral component to its use, looking to architecture to “prevent the genesis and spread of vice.” Thus, “the development of an institution” coincided with the “application of architecture to its buildings.” Lack of variation among cells and the radial structure with cells centered around a governor were key features of the silent prison. These features, along with spaces for punishment and torture which were made visible to prisoners upon arrival, suppressed rebellion and drove many inmates insane. Strict punishment and confining architecture made contact with the outside world virtually impossible.
The collective entity of the prison was “hermetic within the world at large.” Just as a prisoner was isolated from fellow prisoners, the entire prison was separated from the outside world by a massive wall. While entire prison populations were removed from society, cells were the smaller unit of hermetic life within silent prisons. In Pentonville, the cell was crucial in this move to “compartmentalize and separate inmates,” owing to its suffocating dimensions and design that muffled sound and impeded communication. Living spaces were designed to bring each inmate to the same level of isolation; no cell was larger than the next, and the same basic furnishings were available to all. Pentonville prisoners only shared cells when they were forced to do so by overcrowding; ideally, inmates would be kept in complete solitude unless they were outside of their cells laboring, and administrators attempted to enforce constant silence.
The addition of governors to oversee prisoners in English model prisons centralized control in a way that had been impossible in Newgate. Prisoners, while completely alone in their cells, were kept “under the constant gaze of the governor who occupied the very centre” and could survey the entire prison from a convenient vantage point, called an internal gallery; while communication among inmates was forbidden, they could be constantly scrutinized by the centrally located governor.
Architectural innovations put to use within Pentonville were founded upon the belief that communication among criminals was bound to be “evil,” and “fear of solitude was still held to be a function of guilt.” Evans highlights three main attributes of penal solitude in what he calls the second wave of solitary confinement instituted in prisons like Jebb’s. Firstly, reformation was achieved through reflection in solitude. Second, the spread of corruption could be prevented by prohibiting communication among inmates. Last, terror was the most effective deterrent for actions performed in opposition to the prior two principles. In addition, prison planners aimed to construct prisons that would prevent interactions between inmates with varying socioeconomic standings; the “upsurge of intemperance and violence,” attributed specifically to the poor, must not “change the moral character of the laboring populations of large towns.” The construction of individual cells that would hinder communication was believed to be ideal for ensuring that the corruption of one inmate did not worsen another’s.
Under the guidance of reformers like Jebb, the late eighteenth-century application of silent and separate systems made English prison plans more standardized than they had ever been. Moving from administrative methods that allowed chaos within Newgate to methodology that favored the strict order of Pentonville, the English prison system experienced sweeping transformations. The implementation of the silent system within Pentonville Model Prison, designed to mirror American silent prisons, shows that a belief in moral disease pervaded American and English theories on imprisonment. The deliberate use of physical structure to achieve moral reform is a common thread within prison reform in England and the United States. Pentonville provides a useful point of juxtaposition with American silent prisons, as well as considerable proof that their use of the silent system impacted the thinking of English reformers. Sing Sing’s application of the silent system influenced Jebb’s thinking heavily. For this reason, thorough understanding of Pentonville aids comprehension of American silent prisons like Sing Sing Penitentiary.
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Brian, Denis. Sing Sing: The inside Story of a Notorious Prison. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005.
Evans, Robin. The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
O’Donnell, Ian. Prisoners, Solitude, and Time. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2014.