Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

Sing Sing Now

As Sing Sing enters its third century of continuous operation, it houses more than 2,000 inmates and employs approximately 1,000 people. More than 5,000 visitors pass through its gates each month. The prison has been through many transformations over the past two centuries, some good, and some bad. In 1989, the institution was accredited for the first time by the American Correctional Association, which established a set of national standards by which every correctional facility should be judged. These standards assess every area of the prison including health care, safety issues, inmate programs, staff training, dietary standards and disciplinary measures.

Sing Sing Tower (photo by the author)
Sing Sing Tower (photo by the author)

Over the years, many Hollywood movies used Sing Sing as a backdrop for their stories. Films like The Big House (1930), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and 20,000 Years at Sing Sing (1932) helped to form an image of the prison in the public mind that exists even today. Numerous celebrities have visited the facility and some have become part of the folklore of the institution. President Abraham Lincoln, James Cagney, Victor Mature, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Spencer Tracy and many more have stood inside Sing Sing's marble walls. Baseball legend Babe Ruth may have hit his longest home run at the prison in 1925. The New York Yankees played the New York Giants that year and during the game, Ruth blasted a home run over the right field wall, which was said to be 620 feet.

Of course, Sing Sing no longer resembles the prison constructed by Captain Elam Lynds and the Auburn inmates in 1825. Though the original structure still stands, it does not and never will house prisoners again. Plans are presently underway to convert the huge structure into a museum, an idea which may soon become a reality. An economic study prepared in 2002 indicated a prison museum would bring between 100,000 to 210,000 visitors to the area and generate $20 million annually to Westchester County. There is still a tremendous interest in the facility as an historical centerpiece and Sing Sing's place in American culture is certainly affirmed. Legal electrocutions are a thing of the past and, as they fade further into history, they are sure to become symbolic of a unique era that will never return.

A replica of modern  cells at Sing Sing. (photo by the author)
A replica of modern cells at Sing Sing.
(photo by the author)

Standing inside the marble confines of the original prison today can be an awesome experience. The time-ravaged walls of the cellblock scream out from a violent and depressing past when men were caged like animals in tiny cells, with little water and barely enough food to stay alive. A visitor cannot help but imagine these luckless men on the damp, cold floors, day after day, night after night, staring out into a bleak future while the monotonous years piled on top of one another like so much stone upon stone. The dark history of prisons in America is a frightening reality, a reminder of a distant age in which brutality and casual neglect was the national policy towards criminals.