Sing Sing was the third New York State Prison
to be built, after Newgate in 1797 and Auburn in 1821.
Construction began in 1825 in an abandoned mining site on the banks of the Hudson River in the town of Mt. Pleasant, about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Copper and galena had been mined there and a large marble quarry was conveniently present, so a hundred convicts from the Auburn prison were brought down the Erie Canal by barge to the Hudson and ultimately to Sing Sing landing, which was named for the Sint Sinck Native American Tribe.
The entire prison was built of local marble by convict labor under the unusually cruel hand of Elam Lynds, who had been the warden at Auburn and believed whole-heartedly in total intimidation. Prisoners were forced to march close together, in lock-step, to and from their work sites in complete silence. Malefactors were punished by strokes of the cat-of-nine-tails, often by guards who had been hand-picked by Lynds because of their difficulty in counting accurately, thus assuring that more strokes would be laid on the prisoner than the punishment required.
The first cell block was completed in 1828. There were 800 cells, each seven-feet deep, three-feet-three-inches wide, and six-feet-seven-inches high. A hospital, kitchen and chapel were added by 1830, and an exercise yard was completed in 1831.
Over the next seventy years, prison capacity increased to more than twelve hundred inmates. The convicts in "the House of Fear" continued to quarry marble for the construction of Grace Church in Manhattan, New York University, and the City Hall in Albany, the state capital. They also engaged in contracted labor, constructing barrels, shoes and boots, hats, brushes and mattresses. In time however, labor unions complained about jobs lost to inmates and the local municipalities known collectively as Sing Sing changed their name to Ossining, because local products were being boycotted because of the prison connection.
By all accounts, a sentence served in Sing Sing was a stay in hell. Attempts at reform were rebuffed continuously throughout the 19th century. The prison was the last stop for New York State’s most incorrigible criminals, and beginning on July 7, 1891, executions by electrocution were carried out in the "Death House," which contained Sing Sing’s famous electric chair. Harris A. Smiler was the first man electrocuted, and by 1963, 614 men and women "went to the chair."
During the 20th century, even as the "Death House" found its way to front page sensationalism and movie screens nation-wide (being sent "up the river" was synonymous with a prison term, thanks to Jimmy Cagney movies), reform gradually took place. Striped uniforms, complete silence, corporal punishment, each became things of a barbarous past.
America’s most infamous executions continued to take place at Sing Sing, however. Ruth Snyder’s death was a grim front-page photograph in the New York Daily News in 1928, when a photographer smuggled a camera into the "Death House."
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of espionage, died in the chair in 1953.
Recent years have seen modernization of the prison, which now has more than 2400 inmates, with over 1800 held in maximum security. There are over 1000 employees, 750 of whom are guards.
Nearly one quarter of Sing Sing’s population is serving time for murder.
A Sing Sing Update:
Guard Convicted of Crushing Kittens
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 18, 2001; 3:41 PM
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. –– A prison guard was convicted Tuesday of aggravated cruelty to animals for crushing five kittens to death in a trash compactor at Sing Sing.
Ronald Hunlock, 47, could get up to two years in prison.
"In the overall scheme of things in today's world, the lives of five kittens could easily be considered of slight significance by some," said Judge Peter Leavitt, announcing his verdict after a non-jury trial. "This court feels differently."
Hunlock was also convicted of trying to kill the kittens' mother, who escaped from the compactor at the last moment and has since been adopted.
He showed no reaction on hearing the verdict.
Hunlock found the kittens in a search of an inmate's cell at the state prison last month and ordered the prisoner to put them in the compactor. When the inmate refused, Hunlock did it himself.
He claimed the cats were deathly ill.
Hunlock has been suspended without pay and will be fired upon his sentencing March 19, corrections officials said.