A Place to Receive Them
In 1825, the State of New York appropriated $20,100 to purchase a 130-acre site on the Hudson River for what is now the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. By May of that year, 100 convicted criminals were transported from the Auburn (NY) Prison to a new site in the town of Mount Pleasant (also the prison's original name), but without "a place to receive them or a wall to enclose them."
Constructed by Prisoners
To construct the 1825 Cellblock, prisoners excavated marble from a nearby marble quarry. The original building was 476 feet long, 44 feet wide and four tiers high, with a capacity of 800 cells, all built of Sing Sing marble. Each cell was 7 feet deep, 3 feet 3 inches wide and 6 feet 7 inches high. On November 26, 1828, the convicts occupied their cells for the first time. Within a few years, prisoners continued to mine Sing Sing marble, which was used in the construction of such notable buildings as Lyndhurst, New York University, Grace Church, the New York State Capitol Building and the United States Treasury Building. Two additional buildings were built at the prison by 1830, one containing a hospital and a kitchen, and the other a chapel for 900 men.
The Auburn System
The prevailing form of punishment at Sing Sing Prison followed the “Auburn System” in which prisoners were confined to solitary cells at night and worked silently in “congregant” labor groups during the day. This system, which also employed the “lockstep” as a method of controlling and moving inmates through the prison grounds, gradually became adopted as the primary system for prisons in the United States over the competing solitary confinement system used at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Sing Sing Prison was also the site of the infamous “Death House” where 614 executions (including 8 women) by electrocution took place between 1891 and 1963.
In the early 20th century, prison reform initiatives resulted in dramatic changes in the treatment of prisoners such as the abolition of the lockstep, the granting of “freedom of the yard” to inmates, and the introduction of baseball and other recreation. For many years, the New York Yankees visited the jail to play an exhibition game against the inmates. In the first half of the 20th century, new construction projects included cellblocks, a chapel, an administration building, storehouse, mess hall, bath house and barber shop. Inmates also had had access to a library and classrooms. Warden Lewis E. Lawes allowed a former New York City newspaper editor convicted of murder to build a large birdhouse within the prison grounds.
Sing Sing also became a popular movie backdrop during the 1930s and 1940s, especially for films featuring James Cagney, and was used in 1995 for remakes of "Kiss of Death" and "Bullet." Warner Bros. studio filmed many features here and donated funds for a prison gymnasium in 1934.
Paved With Good Intentions: Origins of the New York Penitentiary
Learn more at this new website tracing the origins of the New York Penitentiary. Under the guidance of Professor Roger Panetta, the class spent a semester researching the origins of the New York state penitentiary system, with emphasis on two particularly formative prisons: Sing Sing and Newgate. The comprehensive research was published online as this website. The project was completed under Roger Panetta, their esteemed professor. Please direct any questions and queries to: firstname.lastname@example.org.