Sanitation at Sing Sing During the Mid-to-Late 19th Century

 Unsanitary Design of Building

In June of 1901, sanitary engineer Charles Wingate evaluated the state of sanitation at Sing Sing Prison. He began his report by stating that Sing Sing, designed in 1824, was built to maximize security and no thought was given to the sanitary values of the structure itself. The walls, made of stone, absorbed moisture in high humidity and did not insulate heat in low temperatures. The windows of the cell structure were deep and small, preventing sunlight from entering the cells. Additionally, the building was situated from north to south, meaning that half of the cells did not receive any sunlight for at least half of the day.

1855 wood engraving of Sing Sing (Figure 1)

1855 wood engraving of Sing Sing (Figure 1)

Wingate also argued that the physical site of Sing Sing was poorly chosen from a sanitation perspective: “Lying in a hollow, between a sloping hillside and the Hudson, it receives the surface drainage of the land above, while it is built on made ground rising only six feet above tide level.” [i] Though there was a large amount of drainage flowing into the prison grounds, there was no area where that drainage could be relocated, thus saturating the site. According to Wingate, “[i]t is an axiom of sanitary science that a damp soil is a potent cause of disease, but when the soil is polluted as well as moist, and when the air is thus contaminated, everything is ripe for the development of contagion.” Wingate also cited issues with pollution, explaining the waste from the village of Ossining, located upstream of the prison, further contaminating the areas surrounding the compound.[ii]

Map showing the location of Sing Sing State Prison in relation to the village of Sing Sing, 1893 (Figure 1)

Map showing the location of Sing Sing State Prison in relation to the village of Sing Sing, 1893 (Figure 2)

Structural Faults

Wingate also took issue with the interior structures of the cell building. He measured that each cell provided approximately 145 feet of cubic air and noted that the regulation minimum amount of airspace for tenements, lodging houses, schools, and barracks was 300-600 cubic feet for each person per hour. The 300-600 cubic feet figure assumed that the air supply would be circulating fresh air. This meant that inmates received less than one-third the amount of air necessary, or one-sixth in the instance of cells occupying two inmates. Additionally, Sing Sing did not receive satisfactory airflow, as the only entrance for fresh air was through the grated doors on the cells.[iii] Wingate did praise the heating of the cell building by steam pipes, saying that they maintained a comfortable amount of warmth during the colder months, though also noting the air the pipes were circulating was heavily contaminated with sewage.

Cell in Sing Sing State Prison, 1910-1915 (Figure 2)

Cell in Sing Sing State Prison, 1910-1915 (Figure 3)

Sewage and Sanitation Routines

The resources provided to inmates in the cells were also deemed inadequate. Inmates slept on beds made of straw that easily absorbed moisture and became rotten and unsanitary. Each cell contained a “night bucket” in which inmates would deposit their waste. The bucket would remain in the cell with the inmate until the next morning, meaning that the inmate had to sit in a confined space with their excrement for hours at a time. In general, the minimal plumbing at Sing Sing was not sanitary. There was only one bathroom and urinal on the first floor, with the upper five floors only containing sinks for draining. Wingate described the sinks, stating,

[they] are not separately trapped, as is now considered essential, but a single trap is placed at the bottom of the waste pipe which can be easily syphoned, while, as the waste pipe does not extend through the roof to the outer air, which is another indispensable requirement, the foul odors from the slime-coated interior have free vent into the building and add one more source of pollution.”[iv]

The basins that collected the waste in bathrooms were cleaned by hand.

Though there were daily actions taken to clean the cell building, they were not effective. Each day, the floors of the cells were washed down with a hose. However, the cell building was equipped with a sub-par drainage system, meaning much of the contaminated water remained in the building. There were four large inlets that received the drainage from within the building, each connected to the outdoor sewer. The four drains were not well-ventilated and received sewage, allowing the sewage to waft into the air and produce a horrid smell. This system was entirely unsanitary. About the four internal drains, Wingate stated,

[e]xamining and testing with a lighted candle showed that there was a strong inward draft at each of the four inlets to the surface and that foul air in great volume was escaping into the building which is a dormitory for 1,300 men. When, as is usual in cold weather, the windows are closed, these open drains are the chief air supply for the building and the inward current is accelerated by the tide pressure at the outer end of the sewer. A more unsanitary arrangement could hardly be devised.”[v]

Discrepancies Between Reports on Sanitation and Evidence

Though the sanitation of Sing Sing was hardly adequate, prison officials were not hastening to ameliorate this issue. For years, in the annual reports given to the State Inspectors of the New York prisons, favorable sanitation conditions were reported. In 1849, describing the sanitation measures taken by prison officials, the warden wrote,  “[t]he premises were frequently examined and thoroughly cleansed of every impurity. The various apartments were fumigated daily to dispel or neutralize any noxious or impure air, while the dampness which is usually generated by condensed atmosphere upon the walls, was removed by fires lighted in the halls.” However, in that same year, there was a cholera epidemic that killed over ten men.[vi]

In 1850, the health at Sing Sing was regarded as unusually high, and the State inspectors wrote,

“[f]or the unusual good health with which the prisons have been favored during the past year, we are indebted, under providence, to the selection of sound and wholesome provisions, the watchful care and skillful treatment of the physicians, and the successful efforts of the police to maintain cleanliness among the convicts and in every department of the prisons.”

That year, fifteen men in Sing Sing died from infectious diseases that were spread from prisoner to prisoner.[vii] In 1852 and 1853, there were outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. In the annual state report, it was noted that the general health of Sing Sing was overall in good condition.[viii]

Report published in 1859 regarding the nearly

Report published in 1859 regarding the nearly “perfect” sanitary regulations taking place at the prison (Figure 4)

In 1857 and 1858, the State Inspectors wrote, “the sanitary regulations adopted by [the Inspectors] are, as near as near may be, perfect.”[ix] However, the physician for Sing Sing that year, W.N. Belcher, wrote in his report, “I cannot, as in former years, report that general good health has prevailed in the Sing Sing prisons during the past year.” He cited the outbreak of influenza and severe colds during the winter months and the three month long dysentery epidemic as particularly disastrous health issues. That same year, Belcher asked the State Inspectors to consider funding the construction of a separate hospital building.[x] However, it seems that the State Inspectors ignored this request, as Belcher again asks for a hospital building to be constructed in the next year’s report. He wrote of the overcrowding in the hospital room, stating, “the noise consequent on so large a number as are lodged in the hospital, congregated in a room where there are many sick, has the effect to greatly aggravate their disease, and to render diseases more fatal than they would be otherwise.”[xi] This problem was consistent, as the funding of the hospital averaged from around one to two percent of the prison’s total expenditures for an extended period of time.


Sing Sing State Prison practiced poor sanitation during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The unsanitary design of the building allowed for increased absorption of moisture from humidity and a lack of insulation in low temperatures. The physical site of the building allowed for pollution from the town of Ossining to contaminate the area. The interior of the building restricted airflow and prevented inmates from receiving an adequate amount of air while in their cells. The primitive sewage system, such as the “night buckets” that inmates used while in their cells, was odorous and unhealthy, and the efforts made to clean the prison were inadequate. The sanitation at Sing Sing was poor, but prison officials made little effort to improve it; they even went so far as to lie about the prison’s unhygienic conditions.

– Abby Wheat

[i] Wingate, Charles. “The Sanitary Condition of the State Prison at Sing Sing, N.Y.” In Charities: A Weekly Review of Local and General Philanthropy, 97-101. Vol. VI. New York, NY: Charity Organization Society, 1901, 97

[ii] Wingate, Sanitary Condition, 98.

[iii] Wingate, Sanitary Condition, 99.

[iv] Wingate, Sanitary Condition, 100.

[v] Wingate, Sanitary Condition, 101.

[vi] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Second Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 201-211. Vol. 2. NY, 1850, 203.

[vii] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Third Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 232-40. Vol. 3. NY, 1851, 233.

[viii] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Fourth Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 226-32. Vol. 4. NY, 1852, 228.

[ix] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Eleventh Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 241-50. Vol. 11. NY, 1859, 248.

[x] Belcher, Eleventh Annual, 242.

[xi] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Twelfth Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 216-22. Vol. 12. NY, 1860, 218.


Figure 1: State Prison, at Sing Sing, New York. 1855. Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Boston, Massachusetts. In Wikimedia Commons. August 22, 2013.,_at_Sing_Sing,_New_York.jpg.

Figure 2: Bien, Joseph R. “Village of Sing Sing, 1893.” Map. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Figure 3: “Sing Sing — Prison Cell.” Digital image. Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Figure 4: Russell, W.M. A., Wesley Bailey, and W.M. C. Rhodes. Excerpt from Eleventh Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of New York. Digital image. Internet Archive.