Prison System: New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
Status: Active since 1942
Offender Gender: Male
Security Level: Maximum
Distinguishing Feature: Although only the third-oldest prison in the state of New York, Sing Sing is one of the oldest prisons in the United States that is still in operation today.
Inmate Capacity: 1,803
Sing Sing plays an unusual role in the American criminal justice system; it is simultaneously known as a place of brutal and dangerous violence and a place that has embraced modern prison reforms, ushering in modern changes to the criminal justice system.
Like many prisons, Sing Sing is known for its high levels of violence, but the violence, while a pervasive part of the institution, seems to be the result of a combination of violent inmates and failures in appropriate management, rather than the type of institutionalized guard-on-prisoner abuse that one finds at other correctional facilities. A violent assault on a guard that occurred on June 20, 2014, helps highlight the problem. On June 19, guards found a stockpile of weapons, food, and electronic devices in the chapel, which was a reliable signal that prisoners were planning some type of takeover of the facility. The standard operating procedure would have been to place the prison in lockdown and conduct a thorough sweep of the prison for additional contraband, as well as question prisoners about the stockpile. However, the prison was not placed in lockdown. On June 20, a guard questioned an inmate about an unrelated violation. That inmate, a member of the Bloods, went to his gang and asked for both permission to place a hit on the guard and a weapon to commit the assault. The inmate attacked the guard, who was injured, as were two guards who intervened to help the guard. This incident highlights the factors that help contribute to violence at the prison: a pervasive gang presence that is not as closely monitored as it is at other institutions, the widespread availability of dangerous contraband items, and the failure of the administration to respond to threats in a preventative way. The result is a prison that is dangerous for inmates and for guards, and the reasonable fear of violence is often sufficient to spark a violent response in a situation that does not require violence.
Sing Sing has a number of different programs aimed at rehabilitation and geared towards dealing with patients with mental or physical health issues. These programs deal with substance abuse and anger management/ alternatives to violence. It offers high school education and GED courses. Post-secondary education opportunities include vocational training and the ability to take courses through several colleges that partner with the prison through the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, so that inmates have the opportunity to earn degrees through the Masters level. The vocational training programs include: welding, small engine repair, custodial maintenance, electrical, carpentry, computers, plumbing, and heating.
The most famous program at Sing Sing is probably Rehabilitation Through the Arts, founded by Katherine Vockins. It involves theater professionals giving theater-related workshops to prisoners, who then put on plays at the prison for other inmates and for guests. The program has been linked to better behavior while incarcerated and lower recidivism rates, post-incarceration. The program has been so successful that it is now in five prisons in New York State.
Sing Sing has a place in American popular culture that makes it culturally relevant, especially in the context of criminal justice and law enforcement. It is the place where people go when they are sent “up the river” and became synonymous with organized crime, since Sing Sing was the destination for many New York organized criminal figures who were sent up the river by informants. However, it is also a place that helped transform the barbaric prison practices of earlier centuries into a more compassionate and rehabilitative approach.
The transformation, not just of Sing Sing, but of the American criminal justice system, began in 1914 when Thomas Mott Osborne became the warden. Osborne had previously posed as a prisoner at Auburn Prison, then detailed the abuses he experienced or witnessed while undercover. When Osborne came to Sing Sing, it was, in many ways, an extension of the outside criminal world. The prisoners controlled the facility by bribing or threatening guards. These prison reforms were continued by Lewis Lawes, who was warden throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Lawes combined discipline with self respect, introducing sports and education programs to the prison. Lawes was warden when Sing Sing developed its famous prison football team, the Sing Sing Black Sheep. The team was supported by Tim Mara, the owner of the New York Giants, who not only provided them with equipment and uniforms, but also coached them. The teams played at Lawes Stadium, and some of the players went on to have professional football careers after they were released from prison, though three inmates managed to escape before a game in 1935. After ticket sales were prohibited in 1936, the football program, which had depended on those sales, ended, as well.
Of course, not everything about Sing Sing was modern. While New York is not currently considered a significant death penalty state, 614 men and women were executed at Sing Sing in an electric chair referred to as Old Sparky.
Sing Sing is a part of history and there are plans to turn it into a museum instead of a working prison. However, the costs for the project are significant; not only will there be necessary structural changes to the prison if it is transitioned to a museum, but the state also has to ensure that it has available prison space for the current inmates.
There have been a number of famous prisoners at Sing Sing as well as a number of notable executions. Perhaps the most well-known of any people put to death at Sing Sing were the spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage for their role in conveying information about nuclear weapons to the Russians.