Sing Sing Correctional Facility

354 Hunter Street, Ossining

Guard tower at Sing Sing prison, September 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

If you are on a Metro North Hudson Line train, take a look out the window just south of  the Ossining station. For a brief moment, you will notice tall limestone walls, concertina wire, and watch towers. The train tracks bisect New York State’s second oldest, second largest, and most infamous state prison: Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The name Sing Sing derives from the Native American tribe originally in the area, Sint Sinck, meaning roughly “stone on stone” or “a stony place.” Sing Sing was also the original name of the Village of Ossining, which later changed its name to separate itself from the prison. 

Sign at Sing Sing prison, 2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the late afternoon on February 8, 1983, inmates in Cell Block B decided that they had had enough with the maltreatment they had experienced in the prison. After a day of tense interactions with and abuse by a corrections officer by the name of Alexander Cunningham, the inmates began to barricade doors and forced the guards into one end of the block. They took 19 of the 30 employees in the block as hostages.

Cell at Sing Sing Prison c. 1910-1915. Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica.

At Sing Sing, the living quarters for inmates were of inhumane quality. Historian Lee Bernstein describes the cell blocks at the time as “dirty, dangerous, and degrading human warehouses.” Furthermore, there was little to no support for any cultural, religious, therapeutic or educational programs for inmates. Inmates at Sing Sing were also denied, or limited in, simple offerings; visitation hours were sparse, mail service was poor, and there had been recent cuts in outdoor recreational time. During the hostage negotiations, which lasted for three days, the inmates demanded better treatment and services in these areas. To great relief on all sides, the revolt ended peacefully. 

The takeover in 1983 was not premeditated. Inmates at Sing Sing had at first attempted to peacefully protest for change and better treatment. In the fall of 1982, for example, members of B Block went on a food strike and A Block inmates refused to lock in for the night. Such efforts did not bring about the desired results, however. Once the takeover started in February 1983, the inmates debated what to even do and what their purpose was. They did not want to contribute to any violence. Accordingly, they did not harm any of the guards they held hostage. 

The Sing Sing revolt happened about 12 years after the bloody 1971 rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. At the time, Governor Nelson Rockefeller responded violently, leading to 128 men shot, 10 hostages dead, and 29 prisoners killed. It is for this reason that the inmates at Sing Sing hung a banner outside the prison during the takeover that read, “We Don’t Want Another Attica.”

Leading up to the revolt, the New York State prison system experienced record numbers of inmates. Prison overcrowding was quickly becoming a major issue. From 1973 to 1983, the number of incarcerated people in New York State rose from 12,444 to 27,943. As of 1983, Sing Sing was at nearly 130 percent capacity. These increasing numbers were due to the federal government’s “War on Drugs”, the victim’s rights movement, and an overall shift to increase prison sentences. The stark increase in incarceration coupled with insufficient funding led to serious issues of maltreatment and poor, unjust living conditions in prisons across the state and country. 

The Sing Sing revolt is often lost in history because it was resolved without bloodshed. Among why the revolt is significant is that it led to unintended consequences. Determining that the revolt was a direct consequence of overcrowding, Governor Mario Cuomo decided to increase funding of  the prison system, but only to rapidly expand it. This limited resolution proved unproductive, as the expansion and building of new prisons allowed for New York to house the continuously increasing numbers of new inmates, but it did not help mitigate the maltreatment or poor conditions that inmates faced. Consequently, this shift in increased state prison capacities helped lead to the mass incarceration problem that both New York and the entire country faces today. 

Today Sing Sing Correctional Facility still stands, housing 1,479 inmates with a total capacity of 1,747 in 2019. Sing Sing currently offers both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree program for inmates and is the only correctional facility in the state to do so.  

Sing Sing prison, part of an 1893 map of Sing Sing Village. Most of the prison is located on the west side of the train tracks, along the Hudson River waterfront. Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Getting there:

Coming from north or south of Ossining along the east side of the Hudson River, take the Metro North Hudson Line to Ossining station. The prison is less than a five-minute walk from the station. If you are coming from west of the river, take the Haverstraw-Ossining ferry.

To learn more:

C-Span, Inside the Sing-Sing Prison, 1997.  

Lee Bernstein, “The Sing Sing revolt: The incarceration crisis and criminal justice liberalism in the 1980s,” New York Journal, Vol. 100, No. 1, Summer 2019: 1-27.

Ava DuVernay (director), 13TH (film), Kandoo Films, 2016.

Nearby site of interest:

Sing Sing Prison Museum, 127 Main Street, Ossining.

Alec Yeaney, Earth Science and Society, Class of 2021.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *