Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sing Sing

Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison operated by the New York State Department of Correctional Services in the town of Ossining, New York. It is located about 30 miles north of New York City on the bank of the Hudson River.

Ossining's former name, "Sing Sing," was derived from the name of a Native American tribe, "Sinck Sinck" (or "Sint Sinck"), from whom the land was purchased in 1685.

The Sing Sing prison confines about 1,700 prisoners. There are plans to convert the original 1825 cell block into a museum. The prison property is bisected by a four-track railroad line. There are four bridges over the tracks which connect the two halves of Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The northernmost bridge is a pedestrian crossing for employees which is outside the secure perimeter; this bridge is currently closed due to structural deficiencies. The next bridge southward contains utility lines such as steam pipes and electric lines. The 3rd bridge is a secure pedestrian bridge which can be used to move inmates from one side of the prison to the other. The southernmost bridge is a vehicle bridge inside the secure perimeter, which allows maintenance vehicles, shuttle buses and delivery trucks to move between sides without having to be re-inspected.

Sing Sing was the third prison built by New York State. The first prison was built in 1797 in Greenwich Village and a second one in 1816 called Auburn State Prison.

In 1824 the New York Legislature gave Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn Prison and a former Army captain, the task of constructing a new, more modern prison. Lynds spent months researching possible locations for the prison, considering Staten Island, The Bronx, and Silver Mine Farm, an area in the town of Mount Pleasant, located on the banks 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, by May, Lynds had finally decided on Mount Pleasant, located near a small village in Westchester County with the unlikely name of Sing Sing. This appellation was derived from the Native American words "Sinck Sinck" which translates to "stone upon stone". The legislature appropriated $20,100 to purchase the 130-acre (0.53 km2) site, and the project received the official stamp of approval. Lynds hand-selected 100 inmates from his own private stock for transfer and had them transported by barge along the Erie Canal to freighters down the Hudson River. On their arrival on May 14, the site was "without a place to receive them or a wall to enclose them"; "temporary barracks, a cook house, carpenter and blacksmith’s shops" were rushed to completion.

When it was opened in 1826, Sing Sing was considered a model prison, because it turned a profit for the state, and by October 1828 was finally completed. Lynds employed the Auburn system, which imposed absolute silence on the prisoners; the system was enforced by whipping and other brutal punishments.

Thomas Mott Osborne's tenure as warden of Sing Sing prison was brief but dramatic. Osborne arrived in 1914 with a reputation as a radical prison reformer. His report of a week-long incognito stay inside New York's Auburn Prison indicted traditional prison administration in merciless detail.

Prisoners who had bribed officers and intimidated other inmates lost their privileges under Osborne's regime. One of them conspired with powerful political allies to destroy Osborne's reputation, even succeeding in getting him indicted for a variety of crimes and maladministration. After Osborne triumphed in court, his return to Sing Sing was a cause for wild celebration by the inmates.

Another notable warden was Lewis Lawes. He was offered the position of warden in 1919, accepted in January 1920, and remained for 20 years as Sing Sing's warden. While warden, Lawes brought about reforms and turned what was described as an "old hellhole" into a modern prison with sports teams, educational programs, new methods of discipline and more. Several new buildings were also constructed during the years Lawes was warden. Lawes retired in 1941 after 21 years as warden and died six years later. In 1943, the old cellblock was finally closed and the metal bars and doors were donated to the war effort. In 1989, the institution was accredited for the first time by the American Correctional Association, which established a set of national standards by which every correctional facility should be judged.

Four inmates under federal death sentences were executed at Sing Sing. On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for espionage. On August 12, 1952, Gerhard A. Puff was electrocuted for murder. The last prisoner to be executed in the electric chair was Eddie Lee Mays who was convicted of murder and executed on August 15, 1963. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional and the chair was no longer used. Altogether, 614 men and women were executed at Sing Sing. The electric chair was later moved to Greenhaven Prison in working condition but was never used again

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