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.