That said, prison architecture is a punishing discipline that offers little space for creativity, and even less hope of inspiring the public. The structure of the prison is meant to convey a certain fear yet hold out hope for reform; its security functions make it one of the costliest structures to design yet budgets are often tight (in Los Angeles County a new jail costing 375 million dollars has sat closed for over a year because the government can't afford to run it; and they are meant to blend into their surroundings so as to not evoke alarm, a task made difficult by those same security features—after all, it has to have bars, fences, gates, etc.

In the U.S., the philosophy behind over a century of prison design flows largely from two early American institutions that were in themselves competing ideologies of how prisons should be built and run: the Eastern Penitentiary near Philadelphia (also known as "Cherry Hill"), erected in 1829, the largest public building of its time; and New York's Sing Sing, an 1832 improvement on the state's earlier and influential Auburn system. At the still-functioning Sing Sing (the prison north of New York City that spawned the phrase "going up the river"), prisoners worked together, albeit silently, during the day, and were returned to their cells at night. Cherry Hill prisoners, however, were almost exclusively confined to their cells. The merits of both prisons were fiercely debated, with some criticizing the forced labor of Sing Sing and others the detrimental effects Eastern could have on a prisoner's mental health. Both structures shared an emphasis on silence (the word penitentiary, after all, has its roots in the monastical act of silent remorse.)