Sing Sing

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Sing Sing Correctional Facility
Sing Sing as seen from Hook Mountain, across the Hudson River
Location Ossining, New York, United States
Status Active
Security class Maximum
Opened 1826 (completed in 1828)
Former name Ossining Correctional Facility
Managed by New York State Department of Correctional Services

Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison[2] operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the village of Ossining, in the U.S. state of New York. It is located about 30 miles (50 km) north of New York City on the east bank of the Hudson River.

In 1970, the name of the facility was changed to "Ossining Correctional Facility" but, in 1985, it reverted to its original name.[3] "Sing Sing" was derived from the name of a Native American Nation, "Sinck Sinck" (or "Sint Sinck"), from whom the land was purchased in 1685.[4]

Sing Sing prison confines about 1,700 prisoners.[5] There are plans to convert the original 1825 cell block into a time specific museum.[6]

The prison property is bisected by the Metro-North Railroad's four-track Hudson Line.[7]


Early years

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York, an 1855 engraving

Sing Sing was the third prison built by New York State. The first prison, Newgate Prison, was built in 1797 in Greenwich Village and a second one in 1816 called Auburn State Prison.[8]

In 1824, the New York Legislature gave Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn Prison and a former Army captain, the task of constructing a new, more modern prison. Lynds spent months researching possible locations for the prison, considering Staten Island, The Bronx, and Silver Mine Farm, an area in the town of Mount Pleasant, located on the banks of the Hudson River.

By May, Lynds had finally decided to build a prison on Mount Pleasant, near (and thus named after) a small village in Westchester County named Sing Sing, whose name came from the Native American words "Sinck Sinck" which translates to "stone upon stone".[9] The legislature appropriated $20,100 to purchase the 130-acre (0.53 km2) site, and the project received the official stamp of approval.[9] Lynds hand-selected 100 inmates from the Auburn prison for transfer and had them transported by barge via the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River to freighters. On their arrival on May 14, the site was "without a place to receive them or a wall to enclose them"; "temporary barracks, a cook house, carpenter and blacksmith’s shops" were rushed to completion.[10][11]

When it was opened in 1826,[12] Sing Sing was considered a model prison, because it turned a profit for the state, and by October 1828, was finally completed.[8] Lynds employed the Auburn system, which imposed absolute silence on the prisoners; the system was enforced by whipping and other brutal punishments.

Since 1900

Warden T. M. Osborne

Thomas Mott Osborne's tenure as warden of Sing Sing prison was brief but dramatic. Osborne arrived in 1914 with a reputation as a radical prison reformer. His report of a week-long incognito stay inside New York's Auburn Prison indicted traditional prison administration in merciless detail.[13]

Prisoners who had bribed officers and intimidated other inmates lost their privileges under Osborne's regime. One of them conspired with powerful political allies to destroy Osborne's reputation, even succeeding in getting him indicted for a variety of crimes and maladministration. After Osborne triumphed in court, his return to Sing Sing was a cause for wild celebration by the inmates.[14][15]

Another notable warden was Lewis Lawes. He was offered the position of warden in 1919, accepted in January 1920, and remained for 20 years as Sing Sing's warden. While warden, Lawes brought about reforms and turned what was described as an "old hellhole" into a modern prison with sports teams, educational programs, new methods of discipline and more. Several new buildings were also constructed during the years Lawes was warden. Lawes retired in 1941 after 21 years as warden and died six years later.

In 1943, the old cellblock was finally closed and the metal bars and doors were donated to the war effort.[16][17]

In 1989, the institution was accredited for the first time by the American Correctional Association, which established a set of national standards by which it judged every correctional facility.[18]

Today, Sing Sing houses more than 2,000 inmates, with about 1,000 people working there and 5,000 visitors per month. The original 1825 cellblock is no longer used and in 2002 plans were announced to turn this into a museum.[19] In April 2011 there were talks of closing the prison in favor of real estate.[20]


In total, 614 men and women—including four inmates under federal death sentences—were executed by electric chair in the death row house with "Old Sparky", at Sing Sing until the abolition of the death penalty in 1972. High profile executions include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953, for espionage for the Soviet Union on nuclear weapon research; and Gerhard A. Puff on August 12, 1954, for murder of an FBI agent.[21] The last person executed in New York state was Eddie Lee Mays, for murder, on August 15, 1963.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional if application was inconsistent and arbitrary. This led to a temporary de facto nationwide moratorium (executions resumed in other states in 1977), but the chair still remained. The electric chair was later moved to Greenhaven Prison in working condition, but has never been used there as of 2015.[22]

Educational programs

In 1996, Katherine Vockins founded Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing.[23] RTA works in collaboration with theater professionals to provide prisoners with a curriculum of year-round theater-related workshops.[23] The RTA program has put on a number of plays at Sing Sing open to prisoners and community guests. The program has shown that the use of dramatic techniques leads to significant improvements in the cognitive behavior of the program's participants inside prison and a reduction in recidivism once paroled.[24] The impact of RTA on social and institutional behavior was formally evaluated by John Jay College for Criminal Justice, in collaboration with the NYS Department of Corrections.[25] Led by Dr. Lorraine Moller, Professor of Speech and Drama at John Jay, the study found that RTA had a positive impact on prisoners who participated in the program, showing that "the longer the inmate was in the program, the fewer violations he committed."[26] The RTA program currently operates at 5 other New York state prisons.[24]

The organization Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison provides college education to incarcerated people to help reduce recidivism and poverty and strengthen families and communities. In 1998, as part of the get-tough-on-crime campaign, state and federal funding for college programs inside prison was stopped. Understanding the positive effects of education in the transformation and rehabilitiation of incarcerated people, inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility reached out to religious and academic volunteers to develop a college-degree granting program. Under Anne Reissner, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison was founded to restore college education at Sing Sing through private funding.[27]

Football team

•In 1931, new prison reforms gave Sing Sing State Penitentiary prisoners permission to partake in recreation opportunities. The baseball and football teams, and the vaudeville presentations and concerts, were funded through revenue from paid attendance. Tim Mara, the owner of the New York Football Giants, sponsored the Sing Sing Black Sheep, Sing Sing's football team. Mara provided equipment and uniforms and players to tutor them in fundamentals. He helped coach them the first season. Known as the Black Sheep, they were also sometimes called the Zebras. All games were “home” games, played at Lawes Stadium, named for Warden Lewis E. Lawes. In 1935, the starting quarterback and two other starters escaped the morning before a game.

Alabama Pitts was their starting QB and star for the first four seasons, but then finished his sentence. Upon release, Alabama Pitts played for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1935. In 1932, “graduate” Jumbo Morano was signed by the Giants, and played for the Paterson Nighthawks of the Eastern Football League. In 1934, State Commissioner of Correction, Walter N. Thayer banned the advertising of activities at the prison, including football games. On November 19, 1936, a new rule banned ticket sales. No revenue would be allowed on admission to shows and sports events. This money was paying for charity for prisoners' families, especially the executed's kin, and for equipment and coaches' salaries. With this new edict, the season ended and football at Sing Sing, outside intramural, was also terminated.[28]


Plans to turn part of Sing Sing into a museum go back to 2002, when local officials sought to turn the old power house into the museum, linked by a tunnel to a retired cell block, at a cost of $5 million.[29] In 2007, the village of Ossining applied for $12.5 million in federal money for the project, at the time expected to cost $14 million.[30] The proposed museum would display the Sing Sing story unfolded over time.[31]

Contribution to American English

The expression "up the river" to describe someone in prison or headed to prison derives from the practice of sentencing people convicted in New York City to serve their terms in Sing Sing. The prison is literally up the Hudson River from the city. The slang expression dates from 1891.[32][33]


See also


  1. "NYCHS: Guy Cheli's 'Sing Sing Prison' List of Wardens Page". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "NYS Dept. of Corrections Facility list". NYS Dept. of Corrections. Retrieved 2009-07-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "History of Ossining". Greater Ossining Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 2008-10-02. Retrieved December 21, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Hub System: Profile of Inmate Population Under Custody on January 1, 2007. State of New York, Department of Correctional Services.
  6. Village looks to create Sing Sing museum, May 22, 2007.
  7. Daly, Dan (2012). The National Forgotten League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 120. ISBN 0-8032-4460-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 "NYCHS excerpts: Guy Cheli's "Sing Sing Prison"". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Crime Library profile of Sing Sing Prison
  10. "The History of Sing Sing Prison, by the Half Moon Press". May 2000. Archived from the original on 24 January 2001. Retrieved 2015-05-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Lewis, O.F. (2005). The development of American prisons and prison customs, 1776-1845 : with special reference to early institutions in the State of New York. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4179-6402-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Google Books
  12. "New York State Archives: Institutional Records: Sing Sing Correctional Facility". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Thomas Mott Osborne (1914). Within Prison Walls: Being a Narrative of Personal Experience During a Week of Voluntary Confinement in the State Prison at Auburn, New York at Project Gutenberg
  14. Denis Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison, 85-112.
  15. *New York Times: "Convicts' Carnival Welcomes Osborne" July 17, 1916, accessed Dec. 8, 2009.
  16. "Lewis E. Lawes' NYC & NYC Correctional Career:Part 2". 2003-06-25. Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "All about Sing Sing Prison, by Mark Gado — Lewis E. Lawes — Crime Library on". 1920-01-01. Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "NYCHS excerpts: Mark Gado's "Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison"". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "All about Sing Sing Prison, by Mark Gado — Sing Sing Now — Crime Library on". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "'Up the river' views: Sing Sing condos". New York Post. 2011-04-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Executions of Federal Prisoners (since 1927), Federal Bureau of Prisons, retrieved August 22, 2010<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "NYCHS excerpts: Mark Gado's 'Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison'". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. 23.0 23.1 New York Times: For Inmates, a Stage Paved With Hope May 27, 2007.
  24. 24.0 24.1 "Rehabilitation Through the Arts homepage". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Program Objectives - Rehabilitation Through the Arts homepage". Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "The Impact of RTA on Social and Institutional Behavior Executive Summary Lorraine Moller, Ph.D" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-09-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Hudson Link homepage". Retrieved 2011-05-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Sing Sing Football Records: "Sing Sing". Retrieved August 3, 2015.
  29. "Sing Sing Prison Museum, Ossining, New York". Retrieved 2012-11-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "Would a Sing Sing Museum Be in Bad Taste?". The New York Times. 2007-05-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Westchester County". 2012-08-15. Retrieved 2012-11-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Online Etymology Dictionary: "river". Retrieved February 21, 2010.
  33. Sing Sing. Retrieved February 21, 2010.

Further reading

  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. The Repression of Crime: Studies in Historical Penology. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.
  • Blumenthal, Ralph. Miracle at Sing Sing: How One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners. (2005)
  • Brian, Denis. Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison. (2005)
  • Brockway, Zebulon Reed. Fifty Years of Prison Service. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.
  • Christianson, Scott. Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House. (2000)
  • Conover, Ted. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000) ISBN 0-375-50177-0
  • Conyes, Alfred. Fifty Years in Sing Sing: A Personal Account, 1879–1929. SUNY Press (2015). ISBN 978-1-4384-5422-1
  • Gado, Mark. Death Row Women. (2008) ISBN 978-0-275-99361-0
  • Goeway, David. Crash Out: The True Tale of a Hell's Kitchen Kid and the Bloodiest Escape in Sing Sing History. (2005)
  • Lawes, Lewis E.. Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. New York: Ray Long & Richard H. Smith, Inc., 1932.
  • Lawes, Lewis E.. Life and Death in Sing Sing. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1928
  • Luckey, John. Life in Sing Sing State Prison, as seen in a Twelve Years' Chaplaincy. New York: N. Tibbals & Co., 1860.
  • Morris, James McGrath. The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism.(2003)
  • Papa, Anthony. 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom (2004) ISBN 1-932595-06-6
  • Pereira, Al Bermudez. Sing Sing State Prison, One Day, One Lifetime (2006) ISBN 978-0-8059-7290-0
  • Pereira, Al Bermudez. Ruins of a Society and the Honorable (2009) ISBN 978-0-578-04343-2
  • Weinstein, Lewis M. A Good Conviction. (2007) ISBN 1-59594-162-2 (fiction)

External links

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