Inside the Penitentiary

Within these pages, we will dig into the realities of life behind bars, specifically at Newgate and Sing Sing penitentiaries. Through the topics of health, discipline, religion, and silence, we will discuss the actual conditions of the prison. Then, by looking into escapes, prison revolts, and the words of prisoners, we will review how the prisoners felt about these conditions and how they reacted to incarceration.


Newgate Prison, founded in 1796, was the first Official State Penitentiary in New York. Located in Greenwich Village, it was about two miles from New York City in what was then a rural area. Newgate Prison was built with a reformative penal ideology to remove punishment from the public sphere and replace crude, violent corporal punishments with detainment, education, and reformation. Led by Quaker social reformer Thomas Eddy, the establishment of Newgate Prison was built in accordance with the ideals of a growing 18th century social movement toward better treatment of criminals, and with the Quaker values of reflection, silence, and virtue. The prison officials and wardens at Newgate tried with limited success to enforce strict prohibitions on communication, to avoid corruption of convicts and enable pensive reformation. They also required Newgate convicts to perform hard labor, an effort to subsidize prison costs and instill a useful mechanical education and work ethic in convicts. Newgate Prison is generally considered a failure in these regards, neither preventing prison communication and influence nor instilling an ethical or mechanical education in convicts. Due to corruption among corrupt administrators, abusive keepers, and rowdy convicts prone to disobedience, Newgate closed in 1829 but its impact on future prisons and the prison reform movement was substantial, both setting precedents for future penitentiaries and highlighting weaknesses in the organization and conditions of prisons. This exhibition will explore the social ideological and religious Quaker origins of Newgate as well as the organizational and structural systems of the prison and the condition of incarcerated convicts. Also included is an analysis of statistics of inmate backgrounds, based on crime, race, gender, and nationality for all prisoners received at Newgate between the years 1797 and 1810, to explore the makeup of the incarcerated population at Newgate Prison.

-Brandon Satz-Jacobowitz

Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, opened in 1826. It was meant to be a modern prison, designed with the errors of previous state prisons (such as Newgate) in mind. Though Sing Sing was meant to fix the problems of prior state-sponsored prisons, prison officials encountered a number of issues. The prison itself was an unhealthy environment, from the unsanitary nature of the building to a lack of nutrition to the hastened spread of disease; inhumane punishments were administered to reprimand minute misbehaviors; inmates were expected to remain silent; the quality of life in the prison was so low that some convicts tried to escape. This website will focus on these issues and why they occurred within the prison, and will address other themes such as: the influence of Ossining, NY and local visitors on the prison, the biological basis for criminality as studied in the 19th century, and first-person narratives written by former inmates about their incarceration at Sing Sing and their subsequent influence on reputation and reform.

-Abby Wheat