The Construction of Sing-Sing
On March 7th, 1825, legislatures passed an act to replace the old and discredited Newgate with a new penitentiary. By May 12th of 1825, Elam Lynds brought one hundred handpicked convicts over from Auburn State Prison to a site 33 miles north of New York City at the eastern bank of the Hudson River to construct what would become the Mount Pleasant state penitentiary. Later, this penitentiary would be known by the name of the village it neighbored: Sing-Sing.[i] At the site, Lynds’s team would labor away, using marble from the quarry they stood on to build. The main cellblock would not be completed for another 3 years.[ii] At Sing-Sing the keepers would attempt to enforce the Auburn System: separating prisoners during the night and having them work together in silence during the day. However, the administration would have to overcome architectural flaws in the penitentiary: both to maintain general order and to enforce the Auburn system. Perhaps, the most critical design flaw was the lack of an encompassing wall despite the fact prisoners would be working outside in the Marble quarry.
The Hostile Environment
Because of the skewed ratio of convicts to officers, enforcing silence on every prisoner at all times of the day would prove to be an impossible task. Initially, the penitentiary was built to house 800 convicts, however, due to an increase in the number of incarcerated, by 1830 legislature allowed for another tier to be built, and cells for 200 more convicts would be constructed on top of the 800 existing cells (compared to the 770 at Auburn). [iii] The ratio of guards to prisoners was already worrying, for only 34 individuals would be watching over the 800, and later 1000 convicts.[iv] In addition to having a larger quantity of inmates, these inmates would be seen as viler than their rural counterparts at Auburn. [v] These circumstances combined with the architectural flaws in the design of Sing-Sing created a hostile environment where the administration feared endangering themselves by losing control of their inmates. To the Sing-Sing administration, silence and control would be the key to safety and so they would gain a reputation for being particularly cruel in their corporal punishments in their efforts to deter rule-breaking. [vi] However, convicts at Sing-Sing would find ways to exploit architectural flaws and communicate despite this risk of punishment, and so ultimately, the Auburn system at Sing-Sing would fail.
Keeping Order at Sing-Sing
At first glance, Sing-Sing might have appeared tightly run. Similar to the convicts incarcerated at Auburn, Sing-Sing convicts adhered to a strict schedule. In William Crawford’s 1839 report, he described the typical Sing-Sing convict’s day. Prisoners were to wake up at sunrise. The turnkey would then open the cell doors, and on the given signal, the prisoners would proceed to step out from their cells and line up in lockstep formation.
Their eyes and mouths would remain directed at the keeper as they marched towards their workstation, one of several methods of supervising prisoners to prevent communication.[vii] At their assigned workstations, they would be supervised and instructed by a keeper, the ratio of inmates to officer being anywhere from 20:1 to 30:1.[viii] By 8 o’clock, a bell would ring, signaling the prisoners to stop. The groups of prisoners would each form their lines and march to their cells, where they would find breakfast. Each prisoner ate isolated in his respective cell. After breakfast, they would return to their workstations until dinner, where again they would eat an hour in isolation and return to work when the hour was up. By nightfall, prisoners would have their last meal and would then wait for the signal to strip and sleep.[ix] While prisoners were intended to follow this schedule in complete silence, evidence points to the contrary.
1: Architectural Design Flaws
The main cellblock of Sing-Sing was initially constructed to be 4 tiers tall and 476 feet long and 44 feet wide.
Cells were built in rows of 100, each cell placed back to back with an opposing cell. By the time James R. Brice was convicted, there were 5 stories of these sets of 200 built directly on top of each other.[x]
Each cell had an iron door, the upper portion being composed of bars that rivet across. The bars formed squares about 2 inches in diameter to allow light in from the windows across from the doors as well as to allow the inspectors to see the prisoner and the state of his cell.[xi] In Auburn these doors had been recessed into the walls, but due to advances in door locking technology, the walls of Sing-Sing were not recessed.[xii] While the compound lever lock unlocked doors at Sing-Sing fifty at a time, the new structure gave prisoners more opportunities to communicate.
If prisoners were located next to each other, they could easily maintain a conversation in a low tone of voice if one placed his ear and one placed his mouth against the apertures of their respective door bars. [xiii] And since the doors were not recessed as they were in Auburn, the prisoners could easily spot the night patrol before he would get into an audible distance.[xiv] The length of the prison, roughly a mile walk for patrolling guards, left prisoners alone long enough to hold secret conversations.[xv] Even if prisoners were caught making noises at night they would claim to be talking in their sleep. The guards at Sing-Sing were aware of this fact but could not differentiate between real sleep talkers and false ones.[xvi] Even with guards taking extra precautions, like wearing moccasins on their feet to muffle the sounds of their steps, prisoners were still able to detect their presence and communicate.[xvii]
2: Allowing Prisoners to Write Letters
In addition to verbal communication, convicts wrote messages to each other on wooden chips, pieces of leather, or anything else available. By 1847, once prisoners were allowed to write letters to their friends and family, prisoners had easier access to more typical writing supplies.[xviii] Inmates hid away the paper and pencils they were given. They could pass these messages using string or throw their messages from door to door. Inmate hall boys would also carry these messages.[xix]
By 1847, reformers concluded that knowledge of events happening in the penitentiary spread tot he entire prison within 24 hours of their occurrences.[xx] Even in 1845, Dorothea Dix concluded that the communication in prisons like Sing-Sing was at a level comparable to the free communication that occurred in the non-reformed county jails.[xxi]
While many sources claim that Sing-Sing was effective in silencing and controlling prisoners, it is clear that prisoners were able to dance around the rules. The failure of the architecture and discipline at Sing-Sing to completely silence prison is perhaps why the workers would eventually grow to gain their harsh reputation.[xxii]
While it seemed universally acknowledged that at a penitentiary under the Auburn System, it would not be possible to ensure the silence of each prisoner, this hope was still not completely abandoned even by 1860. At this time, John Luckey, in his remarks on the penitentiary, reminded the reader that it is the duty of convicts to labor diligently and abstain from all communication with other convicts.[xxiii] Luckey points out that the way silence was obtained from prisoners was with the threat of the whip, but later Sing-Sing would resort to using the shower bath.[xxiv]
Perhaps Sing-Sing relied too heavily on humans to silence prisoners, and would therefore have to rely to heavily on threats and corporal punishment to maintain order. The very nature of Sing-Sing, lacking a complete boundary wall, perhaps amplified the anxieties of the guards, knowing they and they alone would have to be the last defense against escaping prisoners.[xxv] Keepers were allowed to whip inmates without informing the warden. Keepers could punish inmates for any reason, for there were no written rules. Arguably, this could encourage inmates to behave and remain silent.[vvvi] But clearly, the ideal concept of reformation without harsh punishments was not implemented at Sing-Sing.
[i] Crawford, William. Report of William Crawford, esq., on the penitentiaries of the United States / addressed to His Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department. London, 1839. p. 29. Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora; the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965. p. 136.
[ii] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, p. 138. Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 29.
[iii] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, p. 138. Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 24.
[iv] De Beaumont, G. and A. De Toqueille On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and its Application in France, translated from the French with an Introduction Notes and Additions by Franz Leiber, Philadelphia: Carey Leah and Blanchard. 1833. p. ix
[v] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, pp. 142-144.
[vi] De Beaumont, On the Penitentiary, p. 150.
[vii] Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 31.
[viii] Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 31.
[ix] Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 31.
[x] Brice. Brice, James R. Secrets of the Mount-Pleasant State Prison, revealed and exposed : an account of the unjust proceedings against James R. Brice, Esq., by which he was convicted of the crime of perjury : accompanied by affidavits to prove his innocency : also an account of the inhuman treatment of prisoners by some of the keepers : and an authentic statement of the officers and salaries with other curious matters before unknown to the public. Albany, NY, 1839. p. 30
[xi] Crawford. On the Penitentiary, 29.
[xii] New York State. Legislature. Documents of the Assembly of the state of New-York, 58th session, Volume II, No. 135, Albany NY, In Assembly January 29th 1835. p. 10.
[xiii] New York State. Legislature. Documents of the Senate of the state of New-York, 63rd session, Volume II,
No. 48, Albany NY, In Senate February 17th, 1840. p. 210.
[xiv] DA 58th session, Volume II, No. 135, p. 11.
[xv] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, 139-140.
[xvi] DA 58th session, Volume II, No. 135, p. 11.
[xvii] Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 31.
[xviii] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, p. 140.
[xix] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, p. 140.
[xx] Lewis, Newgate to Danemora, p.141.
[xxi] Dix, Dorothea Lynde. Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States. Boston: Printed by Munroe & Francis, 1845. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. p. 74.
[xxii] Lewis. Newgate to Dannemora, p. 42.
[xxiii] Luckey. Life in Sing Sing, p. 16.
[xxiv] Luckey. Life in Sing Sing, p. 16.
[xxv] Crawford. On Penitentiaries, p. 29.
[xxvi] Crawford. On the Penitentiary, p. 30.
Figure 1: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Marble Quarries of the Prison, with Convicts at work.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e6b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 2: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Line of prisoners at Sing Sing Prison.” Ca. 1860-1920. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 14, 2016.
Figure 3: Taken from Brice, James R. Secrets of the Mount-Pleasant State Prison, revealed and exposed : an account of the unjust proceedings against James R. Brice, Esq., by which he was convicted of the crime of perjury : accompanied by affidavits to prove his innocency : also an account of the inhuman treatment of prisoners by some of the keepers : and an authentic statement of the officers and salaries with other curious matters before unknown to the public. Albany, NY, 1839.
Figure 4: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing Prison, interior view.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 14, 2016.
Figure 5: Bain Collection, The Library of Congress. “Cell – Sing Sing,” ca. 1910-1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Bain Collection. Accessed November 14, 2016.