Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison
"They are not to exchange a word with each other under any pretense whatever; not to communicate in writing. They must not sing, whistle, dance, run, jump, or do anything that has a tendency in the least degree to disturb the harmony...or regulations of the prison," wrote Captain Elam Lynds of New York's Auburn Prison in 1824. Such was the guiding wisdom of 19th century penologists who were convinced that the "silent system" was the path to righteousness and a return to normal life.
Prison reformers felt that inmates had to be isolated from the rest of society. They believed this separation had to be done for the criminal to truly reform. Only after an inmate confronted his criminal past and acknowledged his guilt could a convict rebuild his shattered life. One penologist of the era said that this separation from society had to be so complete, that a prisoner had "to be literally buried from the world!" This philosophy needed to be reflected in the architecture of the institution as well. In the minds of many penologists, there was a potent link between reform and prison design. One citizen's group in Boston said that "the prospect of improvement in morals depends in some degree, upon the construction of the buildings."
In 1825, the state legislature gave the job of building a new, more modern prison to Captain Elam Lynds, a prison warden from upstate New York. Lynds spent months investigating possible locations for the facility including Staten Island, the Bronx and an area called Mt. Pleasant on the shores of the Hudson River. He also visited New Hampshire where a prison was successfully constructed by inmate labor using stone that was available on site. For this reason, Lynds selected Mt. Pleasant, located near a small village in Westchester County with the unlikely name of Sing Sing. It was derived from the Indian words, "Sint Sinks" which translates to "stone upon stone." The legislature appropriated $20,100 for the land and the project soon received the official stamp of approval.
Marble stones cut by 19th century inmates that were part of walls of Sing Sing prison. (photo by author)
In May 1825, Lynds and 100 inmates from the depths of Auburn prison were loaded onto a wooden barge and sailed down the Hudson River to Mt. Pleasant. There, under the most stringent conditions imaginable, exposed to the elements, with little food, no buildings or shelter of any kind, construction began on Sing Sing prison, warehouse for society's worst criminals and destined to become one of the most repressive institutions in America.