Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

The Winds of Change

On August 9, 1900, the hated lock-step method of walking in the prison was discontinued. Prisoners were elated. They could finally walk like human beings. Soon after, the prison-striped uniform was also discarded. The effect was immediate. "We expected good results from the change," wrote the superintendent at that time, "but the effect reaches far beyond our expectations. The men are cheerful and appreciative. The very tone of the institution has changed!" Other reforms quickly followed. More windows were installed, letting in daylight where no light had ever shone before. Baseball was introduced. Inmates were allowed freer access to the yard and more time outdoors. The world was changing. But not everyone was happy.

The lock step method of walking in Sing Sing. (Ossining Historical Society)
The lock step method of walking in Sing
Sing. (Ossining Historical Society)

An investigative committee in the state legislature voiced its objections in a report that was released to the press. "Punishment is a necessary and proper attribute in prison discipline," the report stated. The traditional methods of controlling inmates such as the whip, the chain, the bath and hanging offenders by their thumbs were the components of a "beautiful systems which had heretofore been applauded by almost every state and civilized nation." Despite political efforts to stop it, penology reform continued.

From the period 1900 through 1919, 10 different wardens were put in charge of the beleaguered prison. Some stayed at the position for more than a year. Others stayed as little as a few weeks. A popular joke of the time said "the quickest way out of Sing Sing is to come in as a warden." It was a thankless, pressure-filled job. The facility was old, antiquated, filled with rebellious inmates and plagued by unsanitary conditions. In 1919, an enlightened administrator from upstate New York agreed to take over the reins of Sing Sing. He had his own ideas about how inmates should be treated and how a correctional facility should be run. His name was Lewis E. Lawes and a new era was about to begin.