View Full Version : New York Prison History - Sing Sing

09-30-2003, 09:11 PM
Sing Sing Correction Facility

A colorful history has helped to make Sing Sing arguably the most famous prison in the world. Located just 30 miles north of the media capital of the world, its construction by its own prisoners brought it instant fame. Wardens such as Elam Lynds, Thomas Mott Osborne and Lewis Lawes were magnets for a sensationalist press. A generation of movie-goers learned the colorful prison slang spoken by Jimmy Cagney on Sing Sing's cell blocks, and a local reference to being "sent up the river" would become code everywhere for a prison sentence. Our romanticized prison stereotypes - of grim, stripe-suited convicts marching in silent lockstep, of the death house and the electric chair, of daring escapes, of fear, and of ingenuity in defiance of overbearing authority -- are all the stuff of the legend of Sing Sing.


Elam Lynds and the Early Years

Sing Sing was New York's third state prison. The first, Newgate, was built in Greenwich Village in 1797. Nineteen years later, a second was erected in Auburn. Auburn was too remote to recieve convicts from New York City, then as now the chief supplier to the state's prisons. In 1824, a legislative commission recommended abandoning Newgate and asked Elan Lynds, warden of Auburn, to assist in planning a replacement Lynds was enthusiastic about prisons in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where inmates were profitably quarrying stone. He and the commission reviewed several sites in New York State and settled on the Silver Mine Farm, an abandoned mining site on the banks of the Hudson River. The site offered a rich quarry, providing materials for the construction of the prison and sales; the river would provide transport to New York City markets.

In 1825, the legislature appropriated $20,100 to buy a 130 acre site. Lynds volunteered to build the prison, guaranteeing lie could do it with prisoner labor at little cost to the taxpayer.

In May, Lynds picked 100 Auburn convicts, barged them across the Erie Canal and loaded them onto freighters for the trip down the Hudson. They arrived "without a place to receive or a wall to enclose them." They immediately erected temporarv barracks, a cook house, and carpenter and blacksmith shops, next beginning the arduous task of leveling the steep slope for construction of the cell block.

By winter of 1826, 60 of the proposed 800 cells were completed. The building, modeled after Auburn's north wing, was to be 476 feet long, 44 feet wide, and four tiers high. Each cell was seven feet deep, three feet three inches wide, and six feet seven inches high. Work progressed slowly because of the difficulty of the task; in 1826 only 170 feet of the cell house had been erected. A year later, 428 cells had been completed and in October 1828, the building was finished. Later, two more buildings were added, one containing a kitchen and a hospital the second a chapel for 900 men.

By 1830, the population had increased to 513. Additional workshops were planned, and a wharf was built at the water's edge. Letting of contracts for inmate labor also was underway. At first, it appeared that stone cutting would, as predicted. support the new prison "for all future time" without any charge to the taxpayers. Contracts were made with New York City for stone and blacksmith work, for Grace Church on Broadway, New York University, a courthouse in Troy and the city hall in Albany.

Lynds had completed the entire prison with inmate labor. He ruled through brutal intimidation and the lash, believing inmates could be managed only afler their spirits had been absolutely broken; "his was a silent and insultated working machine." Lynds was said to have preferred keepers (guards) unable to count accurately, as this would serve to increase the number of lashes they delivered with the "cat."

The "Auburn System" in effect at Sing Sing was founded on the notion that perpetual silence in a Spartan "no-frills" penitentiary would cause the inmate to regret his wrongdoings and assist in his rehabilitation it was also thought to yield a perfect discipline and order. A corresponding logic applied to the ''lockstep," a way of' marching in which the inmates followed each other as closely as possible in a silent, rigid and seemingly mindless fashion.

Criticism of his cruelty did not abate with his move from Auburn to Sing Sing. Samuel Hopkins, a member of the legislative commission which engaged Lynds to build Sing Sing, in l828 charged Lynds with cruelty, mismanagement and keeping prisoners on short rations. It amounted to an indictment of the entire "Auburn system" that Lynds helped create. He noted the keeper under this system must have ''absolute command,'' requiring a flee hand in choosing his staff; that their dependence on him likely infected their testimony before legislative bodies. But, swayed by Lynds's abilities and powerful personality, the legislature exonerated him. Hopkins had already resigned. Surprisingly, so did Lynds in 1830, but he would return.

Robert Wiltsie replaced Lynds, and ran Sing Sing as a virtual slave camp for nine years. Under Wiltsie, "fear and force were the only principles employed....Cruel and unjust punishments were inflicted." Wiltsie diversified Sing Sing's industries, producing barrels, boots and shoes, hats, molasses hogsheads for rum dealers in the West Indies, and other wares. Quarrying continued, with observers sometimes repulsed at the sight of convicts hauling stone up the steep hillsides like beasts of burden.

Lynds Returns

In 1840, the appointment of D. L. Seymour as the new agent (warden) brought a glimmering that convicts were more than depraved beasts. He placed controls on whippings, started a Sunday school, permitted some correspondence privileges, and visited sick inmates in the prison hospital. He encouraged the chaplain Rev. John Luckey to set up a library. But the prison's fiscal situation deteriorated and the legislature wanted to return to proven methods. A new board of inspectors, headed by John Worth Edmonds, brought Lynds back to Sing Sing in 1929.

Lynds had already been driven out of New York's prisons three times: Auburn in 1825, Sing Sing in 1830, and Auburn again in 1839, the last when two inmates died suspiciously. But Edmonds had no background in penology. He did not fully appreciate Lynds' nature, knowing only that Lynds had regularly achieved financial success and had always been cleared of any charges of wrongdoing.

Back at the helm of the "House of Fear," Lynds quickly asserted control, closing the library and Sunday school and rescinding correspondence privileges. Luckey was not happy under "the Captain"; he was dismayed by Lynds' terrifying severity.

Women and Turmoil in the 1840's

Edmonds now exercised real authority. He reestablished the alleviations introduced under Seymour and induced the legislature to outlaw flogging. He also paid attention to the condition of the women prisoners, housed in a separate building on the grounds.

Sing Sing had no quarters for females. Females with state sentences were "farmed out" to New York City until 1837, when a new wing was built at Sing Sing for women. It was quickly crowded beyond capacity. Sing Sing's Inspectors, reporting that five children were born in the prison, said "there is nothing to do under the law but to leave them there for long terms with their mothers. Bedlam is terrible and the early death of the child inevitable." The Governor pardoned the mothers of two children. One died before the pardon arrived but the other lived, the only instance up to that time of a child born in prison who survived.

In 1844, Edmonds appointed Eliza Farnham as matron, and she introduced a variety of innovations, including an end to the rule of silence, a five-day educational program, flower pots in the windows, candy on holidays and a piano in the prison. Her progressive program was perhaps in part attributable to her interest in the doctrine of phrenology, which also contributed to the continuing unhappiness of Chaplain Luckey. Luckey, like many others, opposed phrenology on the grounds it removed accountability from the convict. He was also disturbed when Faruham engaged an artist to make drawings of convicts' head formations - and selected Luckey's office as the studio. She also infuriated Luckey when she introduced certain volumes into the library, of which he was in charge, including Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and a phrenological treatise to which she wrote the introduction.

Under severe attack, Farnham restored the silent rule, discontinued morning lectures and confined the women to closed rooms when they were not at work. She left in 1848, a symbol of the defeat of Sing Sing's first stab at humane treatment of its prisoners.

In 1877, the Sing Sing women's wing was abandoned and female felons were again farmed out to local jails.

The Death House

The first execution by electrocution at Sing Sing took place on July 7, 1891. In a chair that was made at Auburn prison, Harris A. Smiler was the first to be electrocuted. After that date, a total of 613 more men and women would die in the prison's chair.

From 1890 to 1914, electrocutions took place at both Auburn and Clinton, After 1914, only the death chair at Sing Sing was used. The electric chair was moved from Sing Sing to Green Haven in 1971. It was last used in 1963. It is now on display temporarily in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Entering the Twentieth Century

Almost simultaneously with the turn of the century, modernization of the prison system got underway with incredible speed.

The lockstep was abolished in 1900 by order of Superintendent of Prisons Collins and in 1904 the striped uniform was abandoned as a "badge of disgrace." The rule of silence was abandoned about 1914. On Columbus Day in 1912, Warden Clancy made a dramatic innovation, allowing the prisoners to remain out of their cells for a whole day. The following year, Clancy brightened weekends (always dreaded by inmates who were confined in their cramped cells from noon on Saturday to Monday morning) by permitting inmates to remain out in the open air on Sunday morning.

Clancy's successor, Warden McCormick, pressed on, allowing prisoners the "freedom of the yard" Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. Baseball was introduced on the recreation field.

Thomas Mott Osborne and the Mutual Welfare League

Thomas Mott Osborne, born in 1859 to a wealthy Auburn family, was active in politics and civic affairs. In 1906, Osborne was invited to address the National Prison Association (now the American Correctional Association). He concluded by saying: "The prison must be an institution where every inmate must have the largest practical amount of individual freedom, because it is liberty alone that fits men for liberty."

In 1913, Osborne was appointed to the newly created State Commission for Prison Reform and schooled himself for his new responsibilities by entering Auburn prison for a week as inmate Tom Brown, number 33333X. By the time he emerged, he had developed the idea for a new inmate self-government organization, the Mutual Welfare League, whose delegates would be elected by the inmate population and would largely write and enforce their own prison rules. It started at Auburn Prison in 1914.

Later that year, Osborne was appointed Warden of Sing Sing. He installed a Mutual Welfare League with the motto, "Do good, make good." His moves perturbed old line staff. He believed that inmates would be trustworthy if they were trusted, but that is exactly what the old timers could not possibly do. His anti-authoritarian stance angered Superintendent of Prisons John B. Riley, who invoked the charge that Osborne was "coddling prisoners." In 1915, the New York Times reported that prisoners preferred Sing Sing under Osborne and regarded it as punishment to be transferred to the less crowded Auburn, and the transferred prisoners were seemingly chosen at random with no say from Osborne. This practice led to considerable unrest at Sing Sing: "Warden Osborne blames the unrest and the two recent escapes on this fear... which he says destroys the effect of all his theory that deserving inmates shall be rewarded and that the undeserving shall be punished."

In December 1915, Osborne was indicted by a Westchester County Grand Jury for breaking down the prison discipline and thus encouraging crimes. Osborne took a leave of absence to defend himself but the case never went to trial. He returned for a short time but resigned under political pressure in 1916.

Lewis Lawes and the Modern Era

Lewis Lawes was born in 1883 in Elmira and grew up within a mile of the reformatory where his father worked as a guard. After military service, he took a job as a guard at Clinton Prison, later transferring to Auburn and then to Elmira. Lawes was promoted to chief guard and head records clerk, then took a leave of absence to attend the New York School of Philanthropy.

Through Davis' influence, Lawes was appointed the head of the New York City Reformatory for male delinquents, where he established a humane but firm system of discipline. Like Osborne, his progressive policies led to a grand jury investigation stemming from attempts to discredit his effort. And like Lynds, he built a new reformatory in Orange County with the labor of inmates, though without resorting to harsh discipline. Lawes was animated by the same spirit as Osborne but was able to accomplish what he wanted without mobilizing political opposition. He also had Osborne's talent for publicity. But where Osborne inspired controversy, Lawes generated support.

Under Lawes, Sing Sing would become the most progressive institution of its kind in the country. He oversaw the overhaul of the physical plant. In 1926, the legislature appropriated $2,775,000 for additional construction. Within the next few years, new structures went up rapidly including two inside cell blocks with 1,366 cells, a chapel, administration building, segregation building, storehouse, mess hall, bathhouse, and barber shop. The industrial plant was completely rebuilt. A new school building opened in 1936 and a gymnasium was constructed from private funds. A hospital was built, and a library with 15,000 volumes was installed along with classrooms accommodating 1,100 inmates. A modern system of intake and classification (unlike the old system, where every inmate was treated exactly alike) was established.

The prison grounds were beautified with shrubbery and expansive flower gardens, all the work of inmates led by a former New York City newspaper editor doing life for murder. The "Rose Man" later noticed birds roosting in the trees and was inspired to raise funds from former business associates as well as inmates to build a huge bird house on the prison grounds, among Sing Sing's gardens. Lewis let him do it. (The bird house deteriorated after the Rose Man's death and was demolished in 1946.)

In 1943, subsequent to the Lawes era, inmates exited the old cell block for the last time. The damp, cramped, and unsanitary structure had been universally criticized since its opening more than 100 years earlier. The iron cell bars were removed and donated for use in the war effort. In 1984, a fire burned the roof off, leaving only a shell; the structure is listed in the National Registry of Historic Sites and can be neither removed nor used.

Sing Sing in Modern Times

A riot at Sing Sing which started January 8, 1983, resulted in a new chapter in the prison's storied history. The riot began with the 600-plus inmates in B-block taking 17 Correction Officers hostage and finally ended 53 hours later after intense negotiations. After the incident, DOCS took immediate steps to address the issues identified as contributing to the incident.

The immediate concerns entailed safety and security items that involved physical plant and staffing modifications and enhancements. But the next several years also saw -- and continue to see -- a very aggressive and progressive effort to provide many new and successful programs to complement the other physical plant and operational improvements.

One of the most significant initial programmatic changes was to convert the "Death House" to vocational program space which provided instruction in several vocational trades as well as an Assessment Shop for reception inmates. Also, the new visiting room and indoor recreation facilities were opened, both of which had been under construction during the riot. Those early changes evolved into a visiting program that now numbers 80,000 participants a year

The Osborne Association also has collaborated with DOCS to provide a parenting program for the inmate population, as well as a Children's Center for the inmates and their children in the visiting room. Complementing these programs was the implementation of a Family Reunion Program which began in 1995.

Other significant and unique programs and/or services included the Special Needs Unit, which was the first prison medical ward for inmates with the HIV virus. The uniqueness of the unit prompted a visit from Mother Teresa. Another only-one-of-its-kind program is the Masters in Theology curriculum which is sponsored by the New York State Theological Seminary at no cost to state taxpayers. And in September 1995, a Certificate in Ministry Program - an offshoot of the Theological program - began at Sing Sing. Thirty inmates graduated from the program in June of 1996 and another 30 last June, obtaining certificates in ministry; another 30 inmates who began the program in September are scheduled to graduate this June. To assure consistent and quality operations, Sing Sing began its quest to be accredited in late 1987. In 1989, Sing Sing became the 14th prison in the Department to receive accreditation and the first of the older maximum-security prisons in the State to receive such a designation. The prison was reaccredited in 1992 and 1995 and will be audited once again this June.

After more than 170 years of change, of tearing down and rebuilding, Sing Sing remains today a secure, robust and modern maximum-security institution. Along with its annex, known as Tappan, which opened in the 1970's as a medium-security facility, the Sing Sing complex houses 2,272 inmates and has a staff of nearly 1,000.

The original Sing Sing wall, constructed in 1877 with handmade bricks, was razed in 1994. It was replaced by a higher elevation, state-of-the art cement wall and maximum-security perimeter fence, a project completed in early 1996. Many Sing Sing employees requested and now own one of the old bricks and a numbered certificate of authenticity as souvenirs of a unique place in history. The brick and its certificate still are being requested by employees, superintendents and other officials of not only New York State by many other state correctional Organizations throughout the nation.