Sing Sing

Coordinates: 41°9′6″N 73°52′8″W / 41.15167°N 73.86889°W / 41.15167; -73.86889
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Sing Sing Correctional Facility
Sing Sing as seen from Hook Mountain, across the Hudson River
Location354 Hunter Street, Ossining, New York
Security classMaximum
Population1,576 (as of 2019[1])
Opened1826; 198 years ago (1826)
Former nameOssining Correctional Facility
Managed byNew York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
WardenMarlyn Kopp (list of wardens)

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, formerly Ossining Correctional Facility, is a maximum-security prison[2] operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the village of Ossining, New York. It is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Midtown Manhattan on the east bank of the Hudson River. It holds about 1,700 inmates and housed the execution chamber for the State of New York until the abolition of capital punishment in New York in 1977.[3]

The name "Sing Sing" was derived from the Sintsink Native American tribe from whom the land was purchased in 1685,[4] and was formerly the name of the village. In 1970, the prison's name was changed to the Ossining Correctional Facility, but it reverted to its original name in 1985.[5] There are plans to convert the original 1825 cell block into a period museum.[6]

The prison property is bisected by the Metro-North Railroad's four-track Hudson Line.[7]


Early years[edit]

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York, an 1855 engraving

Sing Sing was the fifth prison constructed by New York state authorities. In 1824, the New York Legislature gave Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn Prison and a former United States 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 on the banks of the Hudson River.[8]

By May, Lynds had decided to build a prison on Mount Pleasant, near (and thus named after) a small village in Westchester County named Sing Sing, whose name came from the Wappinger (Native American) words sinck sinck which translates to 'stone upon stone'.[9] In March 1825, the legislature appropriated $20,100 to purchase the 130-acre (0.53 km2) site, and the project received the official stamp of approval.[9] Lynds selected 100 inmates from the Auburn prison for transfer and had them transported by barge via the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River to freighters. 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.[10][11]

When it was opened in 1826,[12] it was considered a model prison because it turned a profit for the state.[13] By October 1828, Sing Sing was completed. Lynds employed the Auburn system, which imposed absolute silence on the prisoners; the system was enforced by whipping and other punishments.

John Luckey, the prison chaplain around 1843, reported Lynds' actions in running the prison to New York Governor William H. Seward and the president of the board of inspectors, John Edmonds, in order to have Lynds removed. Luckey also created a religious library for the prison, with the purpose of teaching correct moral principles.[14]

In 1844, the New York Prison Association was inaugurated to monitor state prison administration. The Association was made up of reformers interested in the rehabilitation of prisoners through humane treatment. Eliza Farnham obtained a position in charge of the women's ward at Sing Sing largely on the recommendation of these reformers.[15] She overturned the strictly silent practice in prison and introduced social engagement to shift concern more toward the future instead of dwelling on the criminal past. She included novels by Charles Dickens in Luckey's religious library, novels the chaplain did not approve of. This was the first documented expansion of the prison library to include moral teachings from secular literature.[16]

After 1900[edit]

Warden T. M. Osborne
Aerial view of Sing Sing, 1937
Aerial view of Sing Sing, 1937 (alternate view)

Thomas Mott Osborne's tenure as warden of Sing Sing 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.[17] During his time in Sing Sing he wrote his book Society and Prisons: Some Suggestions for a New Penology, which influenced the discussion of prison reform and contributed to a change in societal perceptions of incarcerated individuals.[18][19]

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.[20][21]

Another notable warden was Lewis Lawes. He was offered the position of warden in 1919, accepted in January 1920, and remained for 21 years as Sing Sing's warden.[22] 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.[23] Several new buildings were constructed during the years Lawes was warden. Lawes retired in 1941[24] and died six years later.[25]

In 1943, the old cellblock was closed and the metal bars and doors were donated to the war effort.[26][27]

In 1989, the institution was accredited for the first time by the American Correctional Association, which established a set of national standards by which it judged every correctional facility.[28] As of 2019, Sing Sing houses approximately 1,500 inmates, employs about 900 people,[1] and has hosted over 5,000 visitors per month. The original 1825 cell block is no longer used and in 2002 plans were announced to turn it into a museum.[29] In April 2011 there were talks of closing the prison to take advantage of its valuable real estate.[30]


"Old Sparky," the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in the early 20th century

In total, 614 men and women – including four inmates under federal death sentences – were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing until the abolition of the death penalty in 1972. After a series of escapes from death row, a new Death House was built in 1920 and began executions in 1922. High-profile executions in Sing Sing's electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky", include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953, for espionage for the Soviet Union on nuclear weapon research; and Gerhard Puff on August 12, 1954, for the murder of an FBI agent.[31] The last person executed in New York state was Eddie Lee Mays, for murder, on August 15, 1963.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional if its application was inconsistent and arbitrary. This led to a temporary de facto nationwide moratorium (executions resumed in other states in 1977, and the death penalty was reinstated and abolished in New York in various forms over subsequent years [32]), but the electric chair at Sing Sing remained. In the early 1970s, the electric chair was moved to Green Haven Correctional Facility in working condition, but was never used again.[33]

Educational programs[edit]

In 2013, Sing Sing Superintendent Michael Capra and NBC producer Dan Slepian working with a group of 12 incarcerated men to start a program called "Voices From Within", created by Jon-Adrian Velazquez in an effort to "redefine what it means to pay a debt to society"[34] Their first project was an emotional video about gun violence, where the men spoke directly to the youth in the communities from which they came. Slepian released the video in 2014 TEDxTalk at Sing Sing.[35] The video is currently being used by various non-profits and law enforcement agencies to help prevent gun violence.[36]

In 1996, Katherine Vockins founded Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing,[37] enabling theater professionals to provide prisoners with a curriculum of year-round theater-related workshops.[37] It has produced several plays at Sing Sing open to prisoners and community guests and has shown that the use of dramatic techniques leads to significant improvements in the cognitive behavior of the program's participants and a reduction in recidivism once paroled.[38] Its impact on social and institutional behavior was formally evaluated by the John Jay College for Criminal Justice, in collaboration with the NY State Department of Corrections.[39] Led by Dr. Lorraine Moller, Professor of Speech and Drama at John Jay, the study found that it had a positive impact on prisoner Pavle Stanimirovic, one of the program's first participants, that "the longer the inmate was in the program, the fewer violations he committed."[40] RTA currently operates at five other New York state prisons.[38]

The Rehabilitation Through the Arts program is dramatized in the 2023 drama film Sing Sing, starring Colman Domingo alongside a cast of mainly real-life former inmates.[41]

The organization, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, provides college courses to incarcerated people to help reduce recidivism and poverty and strengthen families and communities. In 1998, as part of the get-tough-on-crime campaign, state and federal funding for college programs inside the prison was stopped. Understanding the positive effects of education in the transformation and rehabilitation of incarcerated people, inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility reached out to religious and academic volunteers to develop a college degree-granting program. Under Anne Reissner, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison was founded to restore college education at Sing Sing through private funding.[42]

Football team[edit]

In 1931, new prison reforms permitted Sing Sing State Penitentiary prisoners to partake in recreation opportunities. The baseball and football teams, and the vaudeville presentations and concerts, were funded through revenue from paid attendance. Tim Mara, the owner of the New York Giants, sponsored the Sing Sing Black Sheep, Sing Sing's football team. Mara provided equipment and uniforms and players to tutor them in fundamentals. He helped coach them the first season. Known as the Black Sheep, they were also sometimes called the Zebras. All games were "home" games, played at Lawes Stadium, named for Warden Lewis E. Lawes. In 1935, the starting quarterback and two other starters escaped the morning before a game.

Alabama Pitts was their starting quarterback and star for the first four seasons, but then finished his sentence. Upon release, Alabama Pitts played for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1935. In 1932, "graduate" Jumbo Morano was signed by the Giants and played for the Paterson Nighthawks of the Eastern Football League. In 1934, State Commissioner of Correction, Walter N. Thayer banned the advertising of activities at the prison, including football games. On November 19, 1936, a new rule banned ticket sales. No revenues would be derived from show and sports event ticketing. These funds had been paying for disbursements to prisoners' families, especially the kin of those executed, and for equipment and coaches' salaries. With this new edict, the season ended and prisoners were no longer allowed to play football outside Sing Sing.[43]


Plans to turn a portion of Sing Sing into a museum date back to 2002, when local officials sought to turn the old powerhouse into the museum, linked by a tunnel to a retired cell block, for $5 million.[44] In 2007, the village of Ossining applied for $12.5 million in federal money for the project, at the time expected to cost $14 million.[45] The proposed museum would display the Sing Sing story as it unfolded over time.[46]

Contribution to American English[edit]

The expression "up the river" to describe someone in prison or heading to prison derives from the practice of sentencing people convicted in New York City to serve their terms in Sing Sing prison, which is located up the Hudson River from the city. The slang expression dates from 1891.[47][48]


Notable inmates[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Feicht, Jennifer L. (2019-11-11). Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Audit Report, Adult Prisons & Jails (PDF) (Report). New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Retrieved 2021-09-27.
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  3. ^ "Hub System: Profile of Inmate Population Under Custody on January 1, 2007" (PDF). State of New York, Department of Correctional Services. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-06-25. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
  4. ^ "History of Ossining". Greater Ossining Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 2008-10-02. Retrieved December 21, 2008.
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-08-20. Retrieved 2010-09-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ Village looks to create Sing Sing museum, May 22, 2007. Archived 2021-01-19 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Daly, Dan (2012). The National Forgotten League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-8032-4460-3.
  8. ^ Johnston, Helen, ed. (2008-10-24). Punishment and Control in Historical Perspective. University of Hull, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan UK. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-230-58344-3.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  9. ^ a b Gado, Mark. "All about Sing Sing Prison". Crime Library. Court TV. Archived from the original on 2007-05-27. Retrieved 2007-06-07.
  10. ^ "The History of Sing Sing Prison, by the Half Moon Press". May 2000. Archived from the original on 24 January 2001. Retrieved 2015-05-24.
  11. ^ Lewis, O.F. (2005). The development of American prisons and prison customs, 1776–1845: with special reference to early institutions in the State of New York. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4179-6402-4. Google Books[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ "New York State Archives: Institutional Records: Sing Sing Correctional Facility". Archived from the original on 2010-08-20. Retrieved 2010-09-06.
  13. ^ "NYCHS excerpts: Guy Cheli's "Sing Sing Prison"". Retrieved 2010-09-06.
  14. ^ Adam Jay Hirsch, The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America, New Haven and London (1992).
  15. ^ Floyd, Janet, "Dislocations of the self: Eliza Farnham at Sing Sing Prison", Journal of American Studies (2006), 40(02), p. 311 JSTOR 27557794.
  16. ^ Vogel, Brenda, and L. Sullivan, "Reaching Behind Bars: Library Outreach to Prisoners, 1798–2000", The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-first Century, Scarecrow Press, 2009, p. 4.
  17. ^ Thomas Mott Osborne (1914). Within Prison Walls: Being a Narrative of Personal Experience During a Week of Voluntary Confinement in the State Prison at Auburn, New York at Project Gutenberg
  18. ^ Tannenbaum, Frank (1933). Osborne of Sing Sing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 103.
  19. ^ McKelvey, Blake (1977). American prisons: A history of good intentions. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith. pp. 262–265.
  20. ^ Denis Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison, 85–112.
  21. ^ The New York Times: "Convicts' Carnival Welcomes Osborne", July 17, 1916. Retrieved December 8, 2009.
  22. ^ Federal Probation. Administrative Office of the United States Courts. 1947.
  23. ^ "WARDEN LAWES RETIRES". The New York Times. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  24. ^ "LAWES IS RETIRING AS SING SING HEAD; Foe of Capital Penalty Put 303 to Death -- Found Some Prisoners 'Very Fine Men' RESIGNS PRISON POST LAWES IS RETIRING AS SING SING HEAD". The New York Times. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  25. ^ "EX-WARDEN LAWES OF SING SING DIES; Head of State Prison for More Than 20 Years Succumbs to Cerebral Hemorrhage KNOWN AS HUMANITARIAN1 j His Application of New Methods to Penal Correction Won Wide Recognition". The New York Times. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
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  27. ^ "All about Sing Sing Prison, by Mark Gado – Lewis E. Lawes – Crime Library on". 1920-01-01. Archived from the original on 2012-09-30. Retrieved 2010-09-06.
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  42. ^ "Hudson Link homepage". Retrieved 2011-05-19.
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Further reading

  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. The Repression of Crime: Studies in Historical Penology. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.
  • Blumenthal, Ralph. Miracle at Sing Sing: How One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners. (2005)
  • Brian, Denis. Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison. (2005)
  • Brockway, Zebulon Reed. Fifty Years of Prison Service. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.
  • Christianson, Scott. Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House. (2000)
  • Conover, Ted. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000) ISBN 0-375-50177-0
  • Conyes, Alfred. Fifty Years in Sing Sing: A Personal Account, 1879–1929. SUNY Press (2015). ISBN 978-1-4384-5422-1
  • Gado, Mark. Death Row Women. (2008) ISBN 978-0-275-99361-0
  • Gilfoyle, Timothy J. (2006). A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. W. W. Norton Company. ISBN 978-0393329896.
  • Goeway, David. Crash Out: The True Tale of a Hell's Kitchen Kid and the Bloodiest Escape in Sing Sing History. (2005)
  • Lawes, Lewis E. Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. New York: Ray Long & Richard H. Smith, Inc., 1932.
  • Lawes, Lewis E. Life and Death in Sing Sing. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1928
  • Luckey, John. Life in Sing Sing State Prison, as seen in a Twelve Years' Chaplaincy. New York: N. Tibbals & Co., 1860.
  • McLennan, Rebecca M. The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the Penal State, 1776–1941. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-521-53783-4
  • Morris, James McGrath. The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism.(2003)
  • Papa, Anthony. 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom (2004) ISBN 1-932595-06-6
  • Pereira, Al Bermudez. Sing Sing State Prison, One Day, One Lifetime (2006) ISBN 978-0-8059-7290-0
  • Pereira, Al Bermudez. Ruins of a Society and the Honorable (2009) ISBN 978-0-578-04343-2
  • Weinstein, Lewis M. A Good Conviction. (2007) ISBN 1-59594-162-2 (fiction)

External links[edit]

41°9′6″N 73°52′8″W / 41.15167°N 73.86889°W / 41.15167; -73.86889