The Mount Pleasant Female Prison was not the first place to imprison women, but it was the first separate institution specifically for women convicted of a crime. Much like Sing Sing, the female prison was meant to alleviate overcrowding in surrounding prisons. In 1837, women from Bellevue Prison in New York City were transferred up the river and housed in the men’s prison in separate quarters before Mount Pleasant Female Prison at Sing Sing formally opened on June 1, 1839. While few photographs remain, a later report on the female prison described it as “a handsome marble building, two stories high...with a Doric portico of imposing proportions.” The opening made national news. Mrs. Isabella Bard was named the first Head Matron.
In 1844, Eliza Farnham, an author and reformer, became Head Matron and instituted radical changes: abolishing the silent rule, instituting education and literacy, and rejecting physical punishments. While there was notable support for her reforms, it is also well documented that Farnham had frequent run-ins with Sing Sing officials that didn’t agree with her changes.
Though much more can be said about Eliza Farnham as Matron, we know comparatively little about the women incarcerated at Mt. Pleasant, though demographic information is available. During Farnham’s tenure, about 51% of the Mt. Pleasant population was African-American and 3% were native-born. By the end of her time as Matron, 70% of inmates were native-born and 16% were born in Ireland. Ten years later, demographics changed more drastically: 3% of the population were women of color, 24% were native-born, 51% were born in Ireland, and the rest of the population was born in other European countries. This demographic information is critical to uncovering who the incarcerated women were, where they came from, and the role ethnicity, race, and social class play in criminal justice.
Another important piece to understanding the Female Prison at Sing Sing is the contract system: the process by which the prison and the state profited off of the labor of the incarcerated. The original contract at Mount Pleasant was button making but was later superseded by “binding and trimming hats...at 20 cents a day, and the making of clothing and bedding for the State.” The contract system wasn’t always in favor: in the latter part of the 1860s, the warden of Sing Sing and Prison Inspectors urged the New York State Legislature to abandon the practice on moral and economic grounds. A bill to abolish the contract system was introduced into the New York State Assembly in 1870. Unfortunately it did not pass, and prison labor remains a much-discussed issue today.
In 1876 the New York State Prison Commission appointed three men to inspect and report on the conditions of various state prisons, including Sing Sing and Mt. Pleasant Female Prison. In January of 1877, they made their recommendations, one of them being the closure of Mount Pleasant. That year, Mount Pleasant was systematically shut down and all the incarcerated women were transferred out. In 1919, The Argus newspaper published a story titled “Passing of ‘Temple of Tragedy’ at Sing Sing,” describing the fate of the female prison: “The old bastile [sic] which for 79 years has been pretentiously located on the crest of the ridge overlooking the men’s prison and the Hudson River, is slowly being knocked to pieces.” It was fully demolished by 1927.
“Female State Prison.” The Liberator. July 5, 1839. newspapers.com.
Fuchs, Marek. “The Women of Sing Sing.” The New York Times. April 21, 2002, sec. WC .
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https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html.“Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Accessed November 9, 2020. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html.
Nivens, Archibald O. , Louis H. Pillsbury, and Sinclair Tousey. “Frauds and Favors.” New York Herald. January 17, 1877.
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“The Seventh Census. Report of the Superintendent of the Census for December 1, 1852,” n.d.
Wines, E.C. , and Theodore Dwight. “ Report on the Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada, Made to the Legislature of New York, January, 1867.” Albany, New York : Commissioners of the Prison Association of New York, 1867.
Young, Cliffrod M. Women’s Prison Past and Present and Other New York State Prison History. Elmira Reformatory: The Summary Press, 1932.