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What is Sing Sing Correctional Facility?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a famous prison located in New York. Other than Alcatraz, Sing Sing is probably the most iconic prisons in the United States. This prison is still in use, with a population of 1,700 to 2,200 prisoners at any given time. It has hosted a number of notable lawbreakers, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Albert Fish, and a number of mobsters and gangsters from the 1930s to today.

The prison is named for the town where it was built, although the town of Sing Sing later changed its name to Ossining in the hopes of avoiding association with the prison. The town had originally been named after a Native American phrase, sint sinks, which means “stone upon stone,” presumably in reference to the large deposits of rock in the area. Modern Ossining may try to avoid being linked with the prison, but it is hard to miss, name change or not.

Sing Sing was built in 1825 by Elam Lynds and a crew of prisoners from Auburn Prison. The site was very deliberately chosen, allowing the crew to quarry the natural rock from the area to build the facilities, and many of the structures in Ossining are also built with rock quarried by prisoners. Once the prison was established, the hope was that it could be made profitable for the state by using prison labor to quarry rock and shipping it down the conveniently located Hudson River for sale, and this proved to be the case.

The early days of Sing Sing Correctional Facility were grim. Prisoners lived under the Auburn System, which mandated solitary confinement at night, total silence on the part of the prisoners, and brutal punishments for lawbreakers. While these brutal measures were phased out in the 20th century, Sing Sing was still a forbidding place, as it housed the electric chair until New York State banned the death penalty. Today, the oldest cell blocks are no longer in use, and there is some talk of turning them into a museum.

Historically, prisoners worked hard, and many ended up being buried in the prison cemetery. A riot in 1861 led to major reforms, which continued well into the 20th century, with substantial construction occurring in the prison to make amenities like a library, hospital, and so forth available to prisoners.

Legend has it that the phrase “being sent up the river” is a reference to Sing Sing, as prisoners were historically transported up the Hudson River to reach the prison.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon294678 — On Oct 02, 2012

Wow. Finally I found real information online. This is a great article and the contributions @chrisinbama and @wesley91 made this article greater.

By DinoLeash — On Jun 01, 2011

@chrisinbama and @wesley91- Wow! Thanks for that great information! I had no idea that all of that happened. Thank goodness times have changed and our state correctional facilities have provided better accommodations. Great article and great comments!

By wesley91 — On May 30, 2011

@chrisinbama- I completely agree with you. I had to do a research paper on Sing Sing and I was shocked at what I learned. I will add a little of what I learned to go along with your post.

In the 1800’s, almost 75% of the inmates were used for contract labor. They were treated very poorly. The inmates were not allowed to speak or communicate with each other. They were made to eat, work, and exist in complete silence. They were given a Bible to read and many of them memorized verses.

In the 1890’s laws were finally passed prohibiting the prison contract labor. The warden was furious because that left his prisoners with nothing to do.

Another thing that infuriated me was learning the torture methods that were used on the prisoners. Some of them were tied to chairs with a shield attached to their head. Water was poured over their head at a steady pace and many of the prisoners nearly drowned. Another form of their torture was called “bucking”. A wooden bar was placed between their arms and legs while they were sitting down. Then, the bar was lifted up by a hoist, which caused the prisoner to hang upside down. It was only used in “serious” cases.

By chrisinbama — On May 28, 2011

I recently read a book about Sing Sing prison. I was horrified at some of the things that I read. The prisoners did most of the labor work, building the cells. This way, the inmates could be contracted out for profit. The prisoners completed 60 of the 800 cells. The cells were three feet wide, seven feet long, and a little over six feet high. Fortunately, those cells are no longer in use.

Sing Sing became a moneymaking industry. Inmates were forced to make things such as kitchen utensils, hats, and shoes. All of the money made went to the warden and administrators. They started demanding more productivity from the already exhausted inmates. The prisoners were made to work 10 hours a day, usually without meals.

I think that everyone needs to know the history of our country. There is so much more I could say about Sing Sing but I don’t want to make this post seem like a book!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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