Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

The Profit of Slave Labor

One of the reasons the Mt. Pleasant site was chosen for the new prison was the availability of stone. The banks of the Hudson River at this location offered an abundant quality of high-grade marble. Quarrying was already a major industry in the Hudson Valley and a leading supplier of stone to New York City, Boston and Albany. Cut stone brought money into state accounts and financed the cost of building the prison. Using these funds, Lynds began work on a blacksmith shop, temporary barracks and a makeshift cooking area.

Captain Elam Lynds (Courtesy of Ossining Historical Society)
Captain Elam Lynds (Courtesy
of Ossining Historical
Society)

After months of backbreaking labor, the prisoners were able to complete 60 of the proposed 800 cells. A cell for Sing Sing was only seven feet long by three feet wide and six feet seven inches high. It was little more than a cubbyhole for a human being. One warden later wrote that the cells were "too small for their purpose and have been condemned for years; they have poor ventilation and their unsanitary condition is intensified by the necessary use of cell buckets, the most objectionable and injurious relics of a primitive prison system." The design for the facility called for the construction of 800 such cells, stacked on top of each other, four cells high, in a building that was 476 feet long. But Lynds was a rigid disciplinarian and a relentless taskmaster. He pushed the inmates to the limits of human endurance and ruled by the whip and the yoke. After several years of what was essentially slave labor, the main building was completed in 1828 and additional inmates were transferred to Sing Sing. Soon, hundreds of convicts were incarcerated at the new prison and, as a result, more construction projects were undertaken.

A typical cell door from the original Sing Sing 1825. (photo by author)
A typical cell door from the orig-
inal Sing Sing 1825.
(photo by author)

A common practice used during the 19th century in American prisons was contract labor. This alliance between private contractors and prison officials enabled wardens to contract inmate labor out to private industry for profit. Of course, inmates would not share the fruits of their own labor. All the funds went into the prison treasury and frequently lined the pockets of wardens.

Money poured in nonstop from a wide assortment of inmate activities. Lynds added more diversity by producing shoes, hats, wooden barrels, kitchen utensils and other items. Other wardens who followed in his footsteps soon realized that Sing Sing was a money-making opportunity and more than a few administrators retired comfortably on the funds they were able to skim from prison labor. To make matters worse, contract supervisors were frequently brutal men who demanded more and more productivity. A contract usually ran six years, though there were many that lasted twice as long. The inmate workday at Sing Sing was 10 hours, exclusive of meals, and almost every prisoner had to participate in the system.

Slowly, contractors began to exert influence over the discipline and care of the prisoners. Since they had a financial interest in their workforce, contractors would advise the warden which men did not measure up to an honest day's work. These prisoners were then punished and sent back to work as quickly as possible. If an inmate took ill, he was watched carefully. If he turned out to be a malingerer, he would be severely disciplined. More than 73% of the prisoners at Sing Sing in 1854 were used under contract labor to produce such items as furniture, carpets, tapestry, shoes, bedding, cigars and cut stone.

But it was difficult to abolish the contract labor system. No one wanted the prisoners to be idle all day long. Reformers suggested that the state simply take over the inmate work force and eliminate the contractor. Goods could still be produced but the exploitative nature of civilian contractors would vanish.

By 1890, after a strong lobbying effort by area unions, laws were passed which prohibited prison contract labor. The immediate effect was disastrous. Warden A. A. Bush said "Over a thousand men are now locked in their cells with nothing to do. Idleness in a prison is horrible to contemplate; in fact, nothing but disease, insanity and death can be expected from this condition." As a result, over the next decade, inmate labor returned to Sing Sing. But a compromise was reached. All items produced would be utilized by the state of New York, not the public.

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