Finding Sing Sing

I have written before about the book that I have been working on for the last couple years. Something that this experience has provided me with is the excuse to delve into some obscure sources of information. I got something in the mail recently that is a great example of this.

I got this particular item via ebay. Ebay purchases have provided me some great books that I have used for my research. I have also picked up a number of postcards and photographs of landmarks that are relevant. This recent find is quite the gem. It is a 27-page booklet about Sing Sing prison written by the warden of Sing Sing, Lewis Lawes and published in 1933.  This is special to me because one of the main players in my research arrived at Sing Sing in 1932 – scheduled to die in the electric chair.

It measures about 5×6 and has a little woodblock picture of a cell on the cover and Warden Lawes’ name in the font that I have seen used on his other books. The pages inside are of a nice heavy paper and are brightened by section titles printed in green and several photographs.

Lewis Lawes was the warden of Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York from 1920 – 1941. He was kind of a rock star in his day because of his philosophy about the correctional system. Under Lawes, Sing Sing became a model for prison reform. Prisoners got out of their striped prison garb (yeah, they really did wear those), and into more of a work clothes uniform. He supported the formation of prisoner football and baseball teams, and he welcomed in Ossining villagers to come and fill the stands to watch games. “At these games the prison band and the military company stage a dress parade and an exhibition drill. They are colorful affairs.” Warden Lawes did a great deal to reinvent prison life to allow for personal reformation.

Reading this booklet, I recalled one of the things that Ellie related to me about visiting her father in Sing Sing. She told me that for a number of years, she believed that her dad was at college. Reading this little booklet makes me understand why this could be so. Lawes describes the day of the prisoner as regimented, but not unpleasant. Wake-up time was 6:30 and before the bars were opened, the prisoner washes, dresses, and cleans his cell. Messy cells meant losses of privileges. Breakfast alternated between cereal and stewed fruit, with bread and coffee alongside. After breakfast, prisoners mosey to their work sites, but they have time to grab a smoke and a chit chat before the whistle blows to get to work. The prison band serenaded the inmates on their way to lunch. Lawes writes “the meals are varied so as to provide a balanced diet and there is always enough for even the hungriest.”

There was school that was required for some, and selected by others. Prisoners could learn languages, commercial art, bookkeeping, shorthand, mechanics, and any number of vocational skills. The chapel had services for all faiths and chaplains of all denominations provided spiritual support to inmates regularly. The prison library held 16,749 volumes, and in the year of note, there were over 31,000 checkouts. The non-fiction section the most in demand. There was a five night run of the prisoner holiday show that brought in an audience of 5,000 friends, families, and locals. A half a million pieces of mail were handled each year – each reviewed by prison censors.

This treasure gave me the nuts and bolts of day to day life that I have been looking for. It also provided a framed glimpse into what Warden Lawes believed and supported. I have no idea of the original purpose of this publication, but a 2012 reader is appreciates it greatly.


4 thoughts on “Finding Sing Sing

  1. Would you be willing to send me a scanned copy of this book??! I cannot find it anywhere and am desperate to research more of this.

  2. My Father was a Chaplain at Sing Sing during
    Warden Lawes times. His name was
    Practically household word in our home.
    I was looking for a copy of 20,000 years in
    Sing Sing when I found your blog .
    I have a letter written to my Father
    from one of the inmates, sometime after
    myFather left there. I would love to share
    What I have with anyone doing research
    On those years. Maureen

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