Purposes of Labor at Sing Sing Penitentiary

One of the major components of prison life at Sing Sing Penitentiary during the early 1800s was the focus on labor that prisoners performed. While most of the labor was the result of prisoners working with outside contractors, some was performed on the grounds of Sing Sing in various workshops, as well as in the on-site quarry located on the east side of the prison and covering more than an acre of land.[i]

The purpose of labor at Sing Sing was multifaceted, with a few major motivations emerging. First, the hope was that the output of the labor would be enough to make a profit for the prison while allowing the prisoners to pay for their upkeep. Second, prison labor was inflicted as means of punishment, with the hardest tasks assigned to misbehaving prisoners. This gave prisons the ability to make money off even the least cooperative inmates.[ii] Finally, prisons hoped to use labor to teach the inmates skills and trades, making the prisoners less likely to return to the streets and a life of crime upon release. The goal was for the released convicts to be able to use their skills and new education in finding a living after leaving prison.


Figure 1

Prisoners would be forced to do incredibly difficult work, often to the detriment of their own health and safety. The physical cost of the labor at Sing Sing far outweighed the benefits that the prison received. Hard labor was used as a form of punishment, with guards abusing the prisoners even further while the inmates worked. Prisoners were seen as nothing more than tools for production, working off the cost of their own imprisonment.

Labor as an Economic Force

Prisons benefited financially from labor in two key ways. First, they produced and sold their own goods, allowing for the income to be generated solely on the prison’s grounds.[iiii] This is how the quarry made money, with inmates breaking stone to sell to outside businesses.[iv] The other way penitentiaries were able to generate funds was by contracting labor out, allowing prisoners to work for outside parties while the prison itself still brought in the money. The contract labor at Sing Sing managed to make a profit year after year for the prison, as evidenced in the annual reports that the prison issued.[v]

The Factory System at Sing Sing

Originally developed at Auburn Penitentiary, Sing Sing adopted the factory model of prison labor for its work programs. This model resulted in prisoners working side-by-side throughout the day, in a form of work that can be described as “a haphazardly organized industrial plantation,” as opposed to an actual prison.[vi] The prison enforced strict standards of silence, with the consequence of punishment should silence be broken. Prisoners were treated like machines, acting as tools that were meant to work in the day and rest at night. Very little separated prison labor from slave labor on a plantation, with the only difference being the little pay that the prisoners would receive. Prisoners were worked to exhaustion and even to the point of death, but that never stopped Sing Sing from pushing them further.[vii]

The prison factory system was built around the concept of treating the prison as a capitalist body and working the prisoners as the labor power. Prisons are inherently economic entities, in that they both make and cost money. Because of this, prisoners and the prison eventually succumb to the same class struggles that exist in nearly any business. Because of their lack of authority or ability to change their work habits, prisoners are perpetually at the lowest class in the prisons. For the penitentiary, labor was believed to be a means of reformation, with the prisoners expected to be able to become a member of a higher level of society after release. The aim was for the prisoners to become more “productive citizens,” but prisoners instead found themselves doing tedious work for little pay, like workers in a factory.[viii]

Labor for Outside Parties


Figure 2

At prisons across the country during the late 1800s, labor for outside parties existed on two forms. Practiced primarily in the south, lease labor involved inmates going outside of prisons to work, oftentimes on infrastructure like train tracks or in mines. The other form of outside labor was contract labor, where work was brought into the prison by outside companies. [ix] At Sing Sing, contract labor was the most prominent form of work, with the prison getting contracts from companies in Ossining and across the state. These included cabinet making, tapestry sewing, shoe cobbling, hat making, brass working, framing, copper and iron smelting, and more.[x]

The major flaw with the concept of contract labor was that the prison was subject to the demands of outside companies. This meant that contractors could set the amount and cost for the labor, gaining an upper hand over the prison and its inmates fiscally. It also meant that the prison had to make the inmate workers competitive with trained workers outside of the prison, which lead to union disputes and problems regarding how much cheaper it was to make goods in a prison than outside. This occasionally boiled over into strikes outside of the prison, creating conflict between the state and the union workers.[xi] One example was a strike by professional hat makers in New Jersey in 1878, leading to the contracts with prisons to be cancelled.[xii]

On-Site Labor

Various forms of labor existed at Sing Sing, including tanners, blacksmiths, bricklayers, gardeners, iron forgers, saddlers, chain makers, stove builders, boot crafters, laundry workers, quarry workers. Some men worked as chefs in the dining hall and aides in the hospital wards, leaving inmates to care for other inmates. Another prevalent form of labor included work in the quarries at Sing Sing. This work in particular is often associated with the hard labor used as punishment at the prison.[xiii]

There were major problems with prisoners making goods on-site. The prison was forced to compete with outside industries in order to sell more products. While it was easy for the prison to be competitive because it cost less due to the cheaper labor of inmates, this was a very unstable business model overall. The quality of the goods was often poor and the aforementioned problems with the unions were prevalent, preventing the prison from ever really succeeding as an enterprise.

Regarding the quarry, the prison was unable to make a profitable business because the quality of the stones was not up to the necessary levels. The rocks that were mined were a lower form of marble made with a mixture of minerals including feldspars and calcium. These rocks were much weaker than marble that was mined naturally, and were not as desired by most construction companies. [xiv] As a result there were calls to close the quarry from as early as 1833, but this did not happen until well into the 20th Century when the quarries were bought by outside companies.[xv]

Using the prisoners and the prison as a way to finance the prison was unsuccessful, with the inmates never able to do enough work to pay for their cost to the state. The prisoners were forced to work whether they wanted to or not, and if they did not do their jobs the way the guards wanted, they would be punished.[xvi] Furthermore, labor, particularly in the quarries, often ended up losing money for the prison overall in the long term, a problem no company needs.[xvii]

Labor as a Form of Punishment


Figure 3

In the middle of the 19th century, a number of other prisons in America, such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, used labor as a reward from the otherwise monotonous life that inmates faced. At these prisons inmates were forced to stay in a cell all day, thus the ability to do something in that time provided a release from the boredom they typically faced. This was not so at Sing Sing, where all prisoners were forced to perform labor, enforcing control over the prisoners. The labor at Sing-Sing was also used as a form of punishment, differing itself further from a reward based system.[xviii]

The penitentiary’s use of labor as a punishment led the prisoners to compare their work to the forced starvation and the terrible beatings they often received.[xix] Inmate Levi S. Burr associated the act of working in the quarries with other forms of beatings, saying that it was punishment that was designed “for the failure of the prisoners.”[xx] As he saw it, the guards were looking for any errors that the inmates could commit and would beat them for their mistakes, something Burr believed to be harmful to the work ethic of the prisoners.[xxi]

Hard Labor

The idea of using labor as a form of punishment is called “hard labor,” intentionally designed to cause pain in those performing the actions. Looking specifically at the hard labor in performed in the quarry, inmates began to see themselves as working only for the betterment of the prison and never themselves. Even with the payment inmates received, only a fraction of a cent per hour, prisoners still did not feel that the labor was worth the payment, particularly with hard labor being used to keep the inmates down instead of teach them the errors of their ways.[xxii]

Charles Dickens once commented that the prison labor system looked much like the textile factories he had written about, a form of labor that could be called legitimately cruel and unusual punishment.[xxiii] Hard labor was at times even deadly, with the labor in the quarries resulting in inmates being crushed to death by the carts used to move the stones, or occasionally collapsing from exhaustion.[xxiv]

Hard labor was built around inmates performing the most difficult tasks possible. In some cases, this meant being contracted out to build other prisons in New York, as happened to the Auburn prisoners for the construction of Sing Sing in the mid-1820s. This tied into the concept of labor in prisons existing only for the betterment of the prison system itself, for example with the stone mined in the quarry used to build the prison and with products created in the prison only used within state institutions.[xxv]

Labor as Reformation and Education

While labor was used as both a profit and a punishment technique, it had honorable intentions as well. Chief among these was the focus put on labor as a means of education for the inmates, providing skills that could be used outside of the prison, as well as teaching the inmates the value of discipline and hard work.


Figure 4

The Annual Reports of Sing Sing written by Prison Inspectors maintain that labor was used purely as an educational system for the prisoners, allowing them to learn skills that could help them find work in the future.[xxvi] Beaumont and de Tocqueville seconded this assessment, saying that most inmates in the prison did not have sufficient training in any field, learning on the job a new trade or skill for contractors, including clothes making and carpentry.[xxvii] The prison’s hope was that inmates would eventually leave the system and become better members of society, using the knowledge of trade they obtained to find jobs. Beaumont and de Tocqueville explain that this did occur, with prisoners finding success after leaving the prison. [xxviii]

The biggest flaw in this system of education was that prisoners were still forced to do work, regardless of the skills needed. While the skills learned by prisoners were beneficial for future employment, those who were punished brutally for work would be less inclined to learn their trade. Prisoners did not always use the education they received in prison, instead going on to different fields of work that they were perhaps proficient in outside of the prison system. Furthermore, education in prison was seen as a luxury, set aside for inmates who behaved better than their peers. While this is not inherently wrong, it did create a larger divide between “good” and “bad” inmates in a prison, preventing all from attaining skills to suit life outside of the walls. [xxix]


The system of labor in prisons during the 19th Century at Sing Sing Penitentiary was based on using labor as a means of profit for the prison, while also aiding the prison in both teaching and punishing the inmates. In these aspects of the general plan that Sing Sing and many prisons had about labor, there were only minor successes. However, the general case was that prisoners were abused and forced to work much harder than they had the capacity for, eventually losing money for the prison while not learning anything.

At Sing Sing, the use of labor as both a form of punishment and a profitable business at the same time created conflicts in how the prisoners were treated and how life was at the prison. While it could be said that the education-based goals of the prison were well-intentioned, the methods to achieve it were poor. The labor at Sing Sing was very difficult and only fiscally benefited those at the top, resulting in the prisoners being ignored by the prison system.

-Liam Haber

[i] Burr, Levi S. A Voice from Sing-Sing: Giving a General Description of the State Prison. Albany, NY. 1833. p. 9

[ii] Beaumont, Gustave de, and Alexis de Tocqueville. On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application in France. France, 1923. https://archive.org/stream/onpenitentiarysy00beau#page/n41/mode/2up/search/prisons. p. 24-26

[iii] Bernstein, Lee. “The Hudson River School of Incarceration: Sing Sing Prison in Antebellum New York.” American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 3 (2013). 261-82. Accessed October 12, 2016. https://avoserv.library.fordham.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=91968025&site=eds-live. p. 264

[iv] Burr, p. 16

[v] Inspectors of the State Prison. “Annual Report of the Inspectors of State Prisons, 1861/62 Internet Archive. New York, 1862. https://archive.org/details/annualreportofin1818641865newy.

[vi] Gilfoyle, Timothy J. A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-century New York. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. p. 47

[vii] Ibid, p. 44-52

[viii] Ray, Gerda. “Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini ‘The Prison and the Factory’.” Crime and Social Justice, 1981. https://avoserv.library.fordham.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.29766131&site=eds-live. p. 57-60

[ix] UNICOR, Factories with Fences: 75 Years of Changing Lives. https://www.unicor.gov/publications/corporate/CATMC1101_C.pdf

[x] Inspectors of the State Prison. p. 112


[xii] “Opposed to Prison Labor, Strike of the New-Jersey Hatters.” New York Times. September 25, 1878. http://search.proquest.com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/93703002/BA5E42D8C80E4C5FPQ/4?accountid=10932

[xiii] Burr, p. 1-36

[xiv] Burr, p. 1-15

[xv] Yonkers Granite. Quarry History of NY. http://yonkersgranite.com/quarry-history-of-ny.html

[xvi] Number 1500. Life in Sing Sing. Indianapolis, 1904. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89087904777. p. 67

[xvii] Inspectors of the State Prison, p. 127

[xviii] Christianson, Scott. With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. Boston, 1998. https://books.google.com/books?id=M_DQTqbKcIgC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false. p. 132-134

[xix] Number 1500, p. 168-169

[xx] Burr, p. 14

[xxi] Burr, p. 14

[xxii] Convict in Sing-Sing Prison, b. 1831. Echoes from the living grave. New York, 1869. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t9960q165. p. 111

[xxiii] McLennan, Rebecca M. The crisis of imprisonment: protest, politics, and the making of the American penal state, 1776-1941. Cambridge, 2008. http://hdl.handle.net.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/2027/heb.07820.0001.001. p. 63

[xxiv] Burr, p. 30-35

[xxv] McLennen, p. 54-68

[xxvi] Inspectors of the State Prison, p. 26

[xxvii] Beaumont, p. 36

[xxviii] Beaumont, p. xix

[xxiv] Burr, p. 1-19



Figure 1: WS View of Inmates in Workshop of Sing Sing Prison. Warner Bros. Entertainment

Figure 2: Inmates in Lockstep. c. 1850. Guy Cheli’s Sing Sing Prison.

Figure 3: Cayuga County Woodcut. c. 1840. New York State Archives.

Figure 4: Prisoners picking oakum at Coldbath Fields Prison in London. 1874. Illustrated London News.