The Department of Planning has been working with the Town and Village of Ossining to develop the Sing Sing Historic Prison Museum. The interpretive focus of the proposed Sing Sing Historic Prison Museum will be the history of punishment and the creation and development of the penitentiary and associated reform movements in America as seen through the lens of Sing Sing. Interwoven with the narrative of penal theory and practice and surrounding social and political context, will be stories of individual inmates, keepers, reformers and critics.
In 1825, $20,100 was appropriated to buy the 130-acre site on the Hudson River for what is now the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. By May of that year, 100 convicted criminals were transported from the Auburn Prison to the new site in the town of Mount Pleasant (also the prison's original name), but without "a place to receive them or a wall to enclose them."
Prisoner labor was used to excavate marble from a nearby quarry and construct the prison. The initial construction included a cellblock 476 feet long, 44 feet wide and four tiers high, with a capacity of 800 cells, all built of Sing Sing marble. Each cell was 7 feet deep, 3 feet 3 inches wide and 6 feet 7 inches high. On November 26, 1828, the convicts were locked into their cells for the first time.
Once the prison was completed, the prisoners continued to mine Sing Sing marble, which was shipped to New York City and used in the construction of notable buildings such as New York University, Grace Church, the New York State Capitol Building and the United States Treasury Building. Two additional buildings were built at the prison by 1830, one containing a hospital and a kitchen, and the other a chapel for 900 men.
At the advent of the 20th Century, prison reform made dramatic changes in the way inmates were treated. The lockstep was abolished in 1900, and the striped uniform followed four years later.
Inmates were gradually permitted "freedom of the yard," and baseball was introduced on the recreation field. For many years, the New York Yankees visited the jail to play a game with the inmates. It is reported that Babe Ruth made his longest home run hit on the prison field.
Overseers of Sing Sing in the first half of the 1900s witnessed the construction of new cellblocks, a new chapel, an administration building, storehouse, mess hall, bath house and barber shop. A library was installed, along with classrooms for the inmates. Warden Lewis E. Lawes allowed a former New York City newspaper editor convicted of murder to build a large birdhouse within the prison grounds.
Sing Sing also became a popular movie backdrop during the 1930s and 1940s, especially for films featuring James Cagney, and was used in 1995 for remakes of "Kiss of Death" and "Bullet."
The proposed museum will display, for the most part, the Sing Sing story unfolded over time. Chronological organization will help visitors connect what for many may be a very unfamiliar part of American history to the more commonly known succession of American events and ideas. As visitors learn how America, as a new nation with its own identity to establish, was compelled to – and continues to – grapple with ideas of crime and punishment – they will also learn how central this history is to the understanding of our culture. An exhibit of the 1825 cellblock will be recreated in the taller section of the Power House.
A detailed research document Sing Sing Historic Prison Museum - Assessment of Economic Impacts and Planning Framework was created by students enrolled in the Master of Urban Planning program in Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.