cover image Sing Sing: the Inside Story of a Notorious Prison

Sing Sing: the Inside Story of a Notorious Prison

Denis Brian, . . Prometheus, $25 (263pp) ISBN 978-1-59102-357-9

This history of New York State's maximum-security prison also serves as a look at the development of penal reform in America. Sing Sing was built on the banks of the Hudson River in 1825 by prison labor. Brian (Einstein: A Life ) carefully describes the tenure of Elam Lynds, the prison's corrupt first warden, whose policy of total control over prisoners' every movement and word was enforced by frequent floggings and other tortures. Some reforms were attempted, but it wasn't until Thomas Mott Osborne became warden in 1914 and spent a week living as a prisoner that conditions began to ease. Osborne cleaned up the filthy prison, experimented with self-rule by inmates and made provisions for treating the mentally ill. Sing Sing's history as a death penalty machine is also related, from the first electrocution in 1891 until the last in 1963. Brian successfully conveys how inhumane electrocution was by describing the last moments of the condemned, including Ethel Rosenberg. Sing Sing had its contact with fame: one warden allowed Hollywood movies to be filmed on location there, and John Cheever taught creative writing to inmates. This is an excellent history for anyone interested in the history of prisons and prison reform in America. B&w illus. (Nov.)