Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

Discipline and Control

Guards had a serious problem at Sing Sing. During the late 19th century, American prisons grew bigger and bigger to accommodate the growing crime problem. Inmate populations swelled to huge numbers. Wardens soon realized that they were seriously understaffed and, if things got out of hand, it would be clearly impossible to put down any sort of insurrection by the inmates. Prison riots were incredibly bloody affairs and it was not uncommon for guards to shoot and kill inmates at the first sign of trouble. Prisoners and guards lived under a mutual pact of fear and apprehension. Not surprisingly, various methods of repression and discipline evolved inside the prison walls. These methods ranged from the "silent system," devised in the 19th century at New York's Auburn prison, to actual instruments of torture such as steel cages and the lash. In 1864, Sing Sing records show that 613 out of 796 prisoners received some sort of physical punishment. One man was punished twenty-two times (Lawes).

It is impossible to exaggerate the brutality of some prison officials in their attempts to control prison populations. However, it is also important to remember that this type of violence was a reflection of the era as well. All across the nation, convicts were treated in a similar fashion. There simply was not a great deal of concern for the welfare of prison inmates in America.

Admission procedure in 19th century Sing Sing. A drawing from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper February 16, 1878. (Courtesy of Ossining Historical Society)
Admission procedure in 19th century Sing
Sing. A drawing from Frank Leslie's Illus-
trated Newspaper February 16, 1878.
(Courtesy of Ossining Historical Society)

Prisoners were not allowed to talk or communicate with each other in any way whatsoever. The prisoners ate in silence, worked in silence and existed in a quiet world where penitence was the goal. They walked together in lock step, in their striped prison uniforms, like robots, one behind another. One 19th century visitor wrote, "There was something extremely imposing in the profound silence with which every part of the work of these were performed" (Christianson). Inmates were given a Bible to read and were allowed no visitors from the outside world. Meditation was encouraged. Some prisoners were able to memorize huge portions of the Bible. One inmate committed to memory 1,296 verses, another 1,605 (Christianson). Any violation of the silent system was treated with harsh and immediate punishment. Most wardens believed that to ignore any infraction committed by an inmate was to encourage rebellion. Prisons became autonomous entities, impervious to the outside world.

One method of torture was "the bath," used for decades at Sing Sing to terrify the population and maintain order. An inmate was tied to a chair and a shield was attached to his head that allowed water to rise up over his chin and mouth. Sometimes, the water was dropped in a steady stream from a great height and landed on the top of a prisoner's head. Prison records show that 170 men received this punishment in 1852. That same year, 120 men were placed in solitary confinement and five were "bucked." This punishment consisted of a wooden bar inserted between a man's arms and legs while he was in a sitting position. Then the bar was hoisted onto a stand causing the man to hang upside down like a roasted pig. Periodically, the inmate was turned right side up by the guards to avoid unconsciousness. "Bucking" was considered a severe punishment and used only in the most serious cases (Fifth Annual Report to the State Legislature dated January 6, 1853).

The 'Bath,
The "Bath," an accepted method
of punishment for many years
at Sing Sing. (Courtesy of Sing
Sing Prison Museum)

In the early years at Sing Sing, floggings were common. Since there was no standard code of punishment, the duration of these beatings was left to the whim of the guards. Some prisoners were beaten to within an inch of their lives. One inmate, Colonel Levi Burr, who served three years at the prison during the middle of the 19th century, described a lashing in the prison yard, "On one occasion, I counted 133 and while the afflicted subject was begging upon his knees, and crying and writhing under the laceration, that tore his skin to piecesthe deputy keeper approached and gave him a blow across the mouth with his cane!" (Christianson).

Floggings were common at Sing Sing. (Courtesy of Sing Sing Prison Museum)
Floggings were common at Sing
Sing. (Courtesy of Sing Sing
Prison Museum)

Since food was scarce and little attention was paid to its quality, inmates were most often in a weakened condition. They received a ration of just two eggs per year and fresh fruit was extremely scarce. When some prisoners had the audacity to ask for more food, they were beaten for their efforts. Inmates fell into a cycle of despair and despondency. Suicides were common and many prisoners simply died in their cramped, unsanitary cells. Sing Sing became symbolic of oppression and hopelessness. If a man was sent "up the river," there was a chance he was never coming back alive.

Dr. Amos O. Squires, who became the prison's physician in 1919 often toured the prison checking on the welfare on the inmates. In his book, Sing Sing Doctor, published in 1935, Dr. Squires described his daily routine: "I had to knock on the door of each dark cell to discover if the occupant had fallen ill, lost his mind, or died in the night."