A TRIP TO SING SING AND THEY GAVE ME A MUG

May 2, 2007


(This was written several years ago after a Mystery Writers of America fieldtrip to Sing Sing.)
Sing Sing is the only prison bisected by railroad tracks, and a few minutes before our Metro North Train pulled into the Ossening station, we got our first view of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, with thick rolls of razor wire stretched across the top of the immense granite walls. Then a two minute taxi ride, a short walk through the parking lot and we stood at the entrance to one of the most notorious prison in the USA.

After a thorough security check and Superintendent Fisher had given us an introduction with a brief history of the prison, we were taken on a two and one half hour tour of the facility.

In 1825 the Legislature appropriated funds to purchase 130 acres, thirty-three miles North of New York City. This property offered a rich quarry, which would provide materials for building the new prison, as well as, for long-term productive prison labor. The prisoners lived in tents back then while building their own jail, stone by stone, chopping out the granite rock from the surrounding area. The prison when completed would measure 476 feet long and would stand four tiers high. Each cell was to be 7’ deep, 3’3” wide and 6’7” high. In the winter of 1826, 60 cells of the proposed 800 cells were completed, and by 1828 the construction of Sing Sing was finished.

Until the turn of the century, prison labor continued to be used to cut stone from the property and to provide blacksmith work to fulfill contracts made on the outside by the commissioners.

The Sing Sing Correctional Facility is much larger today and now houses 1,800 inmates, with approximately 900 employees who oversee the operation. Though Sing Sing is a prison which services the entire State, 77% of the inmates are from New York City.

In 1989 Sing Sing became accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), which holds the prison responsible for 437 standards. These standards cover every aspect of the facility, from health care, security and safety, to business office and housekeeping, and addresses inmate programming and custody issues. These standards also mandate that the staff be well trained. ACA returns every three years to insure that these standards have been maintained.

The Sing Sing Correctional Facility contains two major cell blocks, A and B. Cell block A is as large as two football fields placed end to end and houses 800 men in three tiers. Cell block B is not as wide as Cell Block A, and stands four tiers high.
These two cell blocks feed into a hub, a huge kitchen, where two separate dinning halls fan out at opposite ends of the food preparation area. The men eat all of their meals in the dinning room in ten minutes shifts, and the ten minutes sifts promptly begins once the first man in the group sits down. We were allowed to walk through one of these dining halls during a lunch session and saw the prisoners eating hot dogs, squeezing mustard from little plastic envelopes, and at first glance, it looked no different than any other large dining hall. There was a difference though. A correction officer stands at the entrance to the area and hands a spoon to each inmate as he walks through the doorway. Extra guards are posted throughout the hall, and we were told that if there was to be trouble it would be during a meal time. And each prisoner, as he enters the eating area, must pass through a metal detector.

Men who have earned special privileges by their good behavior are housed in a separate section of the facility. These men have unlocked cell doors during the day and are allowed to move about freely within this restricted area. There is a two year waiting list to get into this wing of the prison. If someone gets into trouble while waiting their turn, they are removed from the list, and must begin all over again to work their way back into the good graces of the prison authorities. This wing is for men who have earned the right to be there, and it is not a privilege that is taken lightly. This is also the location where a James Cagney movie was filmed.

There have been 614 electrocutions of men and women in Sing Sing. The last execution was in 1963. The old death chamber is dismantled now, and the area is used as a machine shop. The electric chair has been preserved and will be on display in a Sing Sing museum that is being planned for the future. Superintendent Fisher told us that the walk from the death row cell used to be called the Waltz. He said that when Julius Rosenberg was asked what he wanted as a last request, he said, “I want to dance with my wife.” When he was asked what kind of music he wanted, he responded, “A waltz.” Fisher said that he did not think that this really happened, but the walk was still called the Waltz.

We were taken into long corroders with rectangular windows constructed too far off the floor to look out from. Then we made a turn and found ourselves in a long walkway lit only by candescent bulbs covered in wire cages, with walls that looked so thick it felt as if we’d gone deep into an underground tunnel. Some passageways we were taken through went on for blocks and blocks, twisting and turning, with stairways that went up, then down, as we followed our guild through a maze of locked gates with guards everywhere.

Returning back to our meeting room at the end of our tour, we passed an outdoor area enclosed by a heavy gage wire fence and covered by a tarpaulin, where prisoners graduating from a GED program were preparing for a celebration.

After we ate a very tasty lunch prepared by prisoners learning culinary skills, we met with two prisoners, active in a Youth Assistant Program. This program is designed to help put kids on the right track, with an aim to teach them that in order to make the proper decision one must understand the consequences of ones acts. “We tell the kids,” one of the presenters said, “Don’t listen to the guy on the street who tells you when he goes to jail he’s got it on lock, meaning he’s doing easy time. There is no easy time in prison. Prison is a sea of pain.”

The prison system has changed greatly since the 1971 Attica riots. Now there are policies, procedures and programs in place to insure there is fairness for all inmates. Superintendent Fisher told us that the days of closed prisons are over. Now prisons are linked closely with the outside world. Training for employees is now an intense eight weeks program which covers areas such as communication skills and law. The main focus of the training is to teach employees to rule by leadership, not by intimidation, and to be firm, fare and consistent.

The South bound Metro Train heading back to NYC does not pass through Sing Sing, but the tracks make an abrupt turn and runs closer to the Hudson River. Boats used to bring inmates up this river to the big house, but not any more, the dock was closed years ago. The original outside walls of Sing Sing still stand though, a site now preserved as a historical monument. We saw those vacated old granite walls, ruins now and a home for feral cats and twisted brambles. Oh, if those walls could talk, what stories they would tell.

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