Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

Lewis E. Lawes

Unlike many of his predecessors, Lawes was a correction officer. He had worked in Clinton Prison at Dannemora and also Auburn Prison for years and was familiar with the problems associated with controlling an inmate population. Lawes grew up in the shadow of Elmira state prison where his father was employed as a guard. He later took the same position and rose quickly through the ranks. Lawes was an independent thinker who believed in the humane treatment of prisoners. In 1916, he was chosen to head the New York City Reformatory for male delinquents where he established a firm but fair system of discipline. Lawes also had a talent for self-promotion, which enabled him to derail a great deal of political opposition to his reforms.

Lewis E. Lawes, Warden and author of 20,000 Years at Sing Sing. (AP/Wide World)
Lewis E. Lawes, Warden and
author of 20,000 Years at Sing
Sing. (AP/Wide World)

In the winter of 1919, he was asked to become the warden of Sing Sing, a troubled facility with a dismal record of achievement and many scandals. The prison had nine wardens in the previous nine years. One lasted only three weeks. "I was not particularly anxious for the job," Lawes wrote in his book Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, "It was a political appointment, subject to the vagaries and fortunes of party politics." Nevertheless, he decided to accept the job and on January 1, 1920, he took over the reigns of a demoralized institution.

What Lawes found was a prison system that had deteriorated to the point of chaos through decades of neglect and abuse. Records indicated that there should have been 795 male prisoners at Sing Sing. An actual head count turned up only 762. Female inmates should have been 102. The count revealed only 82 actually present. "How these missing prisoners had left the prison or when, could not be ascertained," he said. One prisoner, who was held for five years, had no record whatsoever of his admission or retention history. It was decided that he was a "volunteer" and immediately released. Lawes found more than $30,000 in cash missing from prison bank accounts and no clue as to where the money went. Documented inmate punishments were shocking to say the least and existing records described a long history of brutality by prison guards and wardens alike.

Lawes read about the cold showers, the ball and chain, the yoke, the iron gag and the dreaded lash. The whip was called the "cat" in prison lingo. Lawes said the cat "was the symbol of authority in Sing Sing. It was made of long strips of leather, attached to a stout wooden handle, and was not infrequently wired at the tips." Prisoners were whipped at the slightest provocation and there was no set standard as to the duration of punishment. "The cat seldom worked alone," Lawes later wrote, "Accompanying it was the salt water sponge that caressed the raw wound."

The iron gag which was affixed over the mouth of an inmate who violated the rules. (Courtesy of Sing Sing Prison Museum)
The iron gag which was affixed
over the mouth of an inmate who
violated the rules. (Courtesy of
Sing Sing Prison Museum)

It was a sad revelation for Lawes, and the new warden became determined to improve conditions at the beleaguered prison. He instituted reforms and new methods of discipline, which avoided physical punishment. Lawes believed that if trust was shown to the inmates, they would respond accordingly. For the most part, his methods succeeded, though without the support of state politicians who saw his reformation as caving in to inmate demands. His critics said that he was soft on criminals and leniency would only encourage rebellion among the inmates.

Under Lawes' direction, Sing Sing began a long overdue plan of modernization. During the next few years, several new buildings were constructed including a chapel, a mess hall, two administration centers, a hospital and a library. A new system of admissions was perfected that allowed prison officials to classify prisoners, something which had never been done before. The grounds of Sing Sing were vastly improved.

It was a startling transformation for a pre-Civil War prison whose bleak walls contained a world that most people would never see. Lewis E. Lawes wrote several books about his experiences as Sing Sing's warden and became an outspoken opponent of capital punishment despite his responsibilities as the overseer of the state's execution chamber. "I am opposed to the death penalty," Lawes once wrote, "because the evasions, the inequality of its applicationthe momentary hysteria, passion and prejudice aroused by the crime, which often make it impossible to weigh the facts carefully and impersonally." He remained on the job as the warden until he retired in 1941.

In 1943, the old cellblock was finally closed. Interestingly, its metal bars and doors, of which there were many, were donated to America's war effort. The 1825 structure was later listed in the National Registry of Historic Sites and can never again be used as a detention facility.