Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the village of Ossining, New York. It is located about 30 miles (48 km) north of New York City on the east bank of the Hudson River. Sing Sing contains about 1,700 prisoners.
|Location||Ossining, New York|
|Opened||1826 (completed in 1828)|
|Former name||Ossining Correctional Facility|
|Managed by||New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision|
"Sing Sing" was derived from the Sintsink native American tribe from whom the land was purchased in 1685. In 1970, the name was changed to the "Ossining Correctional Facility," but it reverted to its original name in 1985. There are plans to convert the original 1825 cell block into a time-specific museum.
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." The legislature appropriated $20,100 to purchase the 130-acre (0.53 km2) site, and the project received the official stamp of approval. 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.
When it was opened in 1826, Sing Sing was considered a model prison because it turned a profit for the state, and by October 1828 it was completed. Lynds employed the Auburn system, which imposed absolute silence on the prisoners; the system was enforced by whipping and other brutal punishments. It was John Luckey, the Prison Chaplain around 1843, who held the Principal Keeper of Sing Sing, Elam Lynds, accountable to New York Governor William H. Seward and to President of the Board of Inspectors, John Edmonds, to have Lynds removed. Chaplain Luckey proceeded to create a great religious library. His purpose was to teach correct moral principles. His religious library was challenged in 1844 when John Edmonds placed Eliza Farnham in charge of the women's ward at Sing Sing. 1844 was the year the New York Prison Association was inaugurated to monitor state prison administration. The NY Prison Association was made up of reformists interested in the rehabilitation and humane treatment of prisoners. Eliza Farnham was able to obtain the job largely on the recommendation of these reformists. Eliza Farnham overturned the strictly silent practice in prison and introduced social engagement to shift concern more toward the future instead of dwelling on the criminal past. She included novels by Charles Dickens in Chaplain Luckey's religious library, novels the chaplain did not approve. This was the first documented expansion of the prison library to include emotional lessons from secular literature.
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.
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.
Another notable warden was Lewis Lawes. He was offered the position of warden in 1919, accepted in January 1920, and remained for 21 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 and died six years later.
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.
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. In April 2011 there were talks of closing the prison in favor of real estate.
In total, 614 men and women—including four inmates under federal death sentences—were executed by electric chair in the death row house at Sing Sing with "Old Sparky", 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 Puff on August 12, 1954, for the murder of an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. 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 Green Haven Correctional Facility in working condition, but has never been used there as of 2018.
In 1996, Katherine Vockins founded Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing. RTA works in collaboration with theater professionals to provide prisoners with a curriculum of year-round theater-related workshops. 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. 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. Led by Dr. Lorraine Moller, Professor of Speech and Drama at John Jay, the study found that RTA had a positive impact on notable RTA prisoner Pavle Stanimirovic who first participated in the program, showing that "the longer the inmate was in the program, the fewer violations he committed." The RTA program currently operates at 5 other New York state prisons.
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.
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 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 prisoners were no longer allowed to play football outside Sing Sing.
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. 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. The proposed museum would display the Sing Sing story as it unfolded over time.
Contribution to American English
The expression "up the river" to describe someone in prison or heading 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.
- George Appo: 19th century pickpocket and con artist. A biographer describes Sing Sing in the later part of the 19th century as being based upon the spoils system and largely corrupt. The biographer also outlines the stove manufacturing operation the inmates were forced to endure.
- Maria Barbella: The second woman sentenced to death by electric chair. Her trial received significant attention in the late 19th century.
- Louis Buchalter: American mobster and head of Murder, Inc.. On September 28, 1917, Buchalter was sentenced in New York to 18 months in state prison at Sing Sing on a grand larceny conviction. After a transfer to Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York, Buchalter was released on January 27, 1919. On January 22, 1920, Buchalter returned to Sing Sing on a 30-month sentence for attempted burglary. He was released on March 16, 1922.. In November of 1941, Buchalter was indicted and found guilty of four counts of first degree murder, was later executed by electric chair on December 2, 1941.
- Ruth Snyder: American murderess executed by electric chair in 1928.
- Charles Chapin: Editor of New York Evening World. Popularly known as the "Rose Man of Sing Sing."
- Albert Fish: Early 20th century American serial killer, child rapist, and cannibal. Executed in 1936.
- Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck: American serial killer couple executed by electric chair in 1951.
- Tony Sirico: actor known for his role as Paulie Gaultieri on the critically acclaimed television series The Sopranos. He spent 20 months in Sing Sing for a 1971 conviction of felony possession of a weapon. Sirico was also an alleged associate of the Colombo crime family before becoming an actor.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sing Sing.|
- Facility Listing - New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
- "All about Sing Sing Prison" by Mark Gado from The Crime Library
- New York Corrections History Society
- Town of Ossining, NY - Town History
- "The History of Sing Sing Prison" Half Moon Press, May 2000 issue
- Rehabilitation Through the Arts homepage
- Tocqueville in Ossining - Segment from C-SPAN's Alexis de Tocqueville Tour
- C-SPAN's Inside the Sing Sing Prison, June 6, 1997
- Unedited footage from C-SPAN's Sing Sing documentary
- Mug shots of prisoners and photos of the prison 1920–1941 (digitized images) from the Lewis Lawes Papers, Lloyd Sealy Library Digital Collections
- Sing Sing Prison Museum website