Sing-Sing Prison

For other uses, see Sing-Sing (disambiguation).

Coordinates: 41°9′6″N 73°52′8″W / 41.15167°N 73.86889°W / 41.15167; -73.86889

Sing Sing Correctional Facility
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 town 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" and, in 1985, it received its present 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]

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

The facility

The prison property is bisected by a four-track railroad line. There are four bridges over the tracks which connect the two halves of Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The northernmost bridge is a pedestrian crossing for employees which is outside the secure perimeter; this bridge is currently closed due to structural deficiencies. The next bridge southward contains utility lines such as steam pipes and electric lines. The 3rd bridge is a secure pedestrian bridge which can be used to move inmates from one side of the prison to the other. The southernmost bridge is a vehicle bridge inside the secure perimeter, which allows maintenance vehicles, shuttle buses and delivery trucks to move between sides without having to be re-inspected.[7]


Early years

Sing Sing was the third prison built by New York State. The first 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.

He also visited New Hampshire, where a prison was successfully constructed by inmate labor, using stone that was available on-site. For this reason, by May, Lynds had finally decided on Mount Pleasant, located near a small village in Westchester County with the unlikely name of Sing Sing. This appellation was derived 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 his own private stock for transfer and had them transported by barge along the Erie Canal to freighters down the Hudson River. 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.

20th century

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 every correctional facility should be judged.[18]

21st century

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]


Altogether, 614 men and women were executed at Sing Sing. Four inmates under federal death sentences were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for espionage. On August 12, 1954, Gerhard A. Puff was electrocuted for murder.[21] The last prisoner to be executed in the electric chair was Eddie Lee Mays who was convicted of murder and executed on August 15, 1963.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional and the chair was no longer used. The electric chair was later moved to Greenhaven Prison in working condition but was never used again.[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]


Plans to turn part of Sing Sing into a museum go back to 2005, 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.[28] 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.[29] The proposed museum would display the Sing Sing story unfolded over time.[30]

Contribution to American English vernacular

The use of the expression "up the river" to mean "in prison" or "to prison" derives from the practice of sentencing people convicted in New York City to serve their prison terms in Sing Sing, which is literally "up the Hudson River" from the city. Its use dates from 1891.[31][32]


See also

New York portal
Prisons portal

  • List of reduplicated place names


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
  • 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
  • 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

  • New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
  • 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
  • C-SPAN's Alexis de Tocqueville Tour
  • , June 6, 1997
  • Unedited footage from C-SPAN's Sing Sing documentary

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