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No. 1034:
Sing Sing Prison

Today, an old prison raises old questions about jails. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1932, Lewis Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison, wrote a very popular book: Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. He dedicated it to "those tens of thousands of my former wards who have justified my faith in human nature." Among the famous prisons -- Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Attica -- Sing Sing is the oldest and most deeply woven into our fabric. When I was a child, Sing Sing meant prison the way Gillette meant razor blade.

In 1825, the state of New York struggled with the riddle: what to do with criminals? Two years before, they'd tried complete isolation -- from society, from one another, from all stimulation. When that failed miserably, they switched to a model that involved prisoners doing hard labor together in silence.

New York finished an 800-cell prison that would function in that style by 1828. They erected it by a quarry on Mt. Pleasant, near the Hudson River town of Sing Sing. Sing Sing's name comes from the Indian phrase sin sinck. It means stone on stone.

In 1901, three years after Edison introduced the electric chair at Sing Sing, the town changed its name to Ossining so people wouldn't confuse it with the jail. Edison's dynamos ran on direct current. He invented that first electric chair to show how dangerous alternating current was. And 614 people eventually died in it.

The 1828 prison was a stark gray stone box -- no trace of ornamentation. The cells were 7 feet high, 6½ feet long, and 3¼ feet wide. They were equipped with a new device invented by an inmate. It was the lever locking mechanism -- a 150-foot-long bar that locked or unlocked 50 cells at once.

Warden Lawes took charge of Sing Sing in 1920. He appears, for a while, to have made the old hellhole into a model prison with a band, sports teams, educational programs, and more. It even had a little brick aviary on the grounds. Lawes's book detailed his penal philosophy. Reform was clearly his first priority, and he viewed the death penalty as a useless deterrent.

Today, the aviary is gone. Sing Sing is as grim as ever. And we muddle hopelessly over the hard question: is prison meant to reform, to punish, or just to keep criminals out of our hair for a season? I doubt anyone knows. What I find most poignant about Sing Sing's long history is that it brings back a time when we honestly wrestled with that question. Lawes ends with an idea that's maybe not so maudlin after all. He says,

We may never produce a world with "Men like gods," but we can at least implant a social consciousness that shall make each of us in truth and in fact his brother's keeper.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lawes, L., Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1932.

Panetta, R., The Design and Construction of Sing Sing Prison, 1825-1828. The Westchester Historian, Vol. 62, No. 2, Spring 1986, pp. 35-55.

I am grateful to Fred Stahl, Wellington Systems, Norwalk, Connecticut, for suggesting the topic and providing materials by R. Panetta.