By Gwen Frenzel
New York State has long had a large proportion of its residents living in New York City. For a multitude of reasons, like discrimination against the impoverished and racial minority groups that are common in New York City, residents of the city make up the majority of the state’s incarcerated population. In 1830, two years after the completion of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York City made up over 10% of the state’s population. The city now comprises 42% of the state’s population. Because a large percentage of the state’s incarcerated population is from New York City, public transportation to state prisons from the city is vital for family visitation. Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a model for other state prisons in its availability for visitation, an important factor in reducing recidivism rates, particularly for visitors from New York City.
The construction of Sing Sing Correctional Facility began in 1825 by convict laborers primarily from Auburn Prison, located over 200 miles from the town of Ossining, at the time named Sing Sing, New York. By 1828, construction was still in progress, but enough development had been made to allow the transfer of all men incarcerated at Newgate Prison in Connecticut, a facility in need of closing. Visitation was not permitted at Sing Sing until 1846, when family visits were permitted twice a year. Late in the 20th century, however, Sing Sing expanded visitation hours to four weekdays per week and one Sunday visit per month. Today’s policy is quite similar–visits are allowed from 8 AM to 3 PM Monday through Friday. Weekend visitation is on an odd/even basis, where incarcerated men can have visitors on odd or even days, based on whether the last digit of the incarcerated individual’s ID number is odd or even.
Sing Sing’s warden in 1846 was Hiram P. Rowell, a man not known for his friendly policies. Rowell would punish incarcerated men as he saw fit for the crime with which they were charged. Methods of punishment ranged from use of the “cat,” a whip, to limiting food, bedding, tobacco, and books, to providing no change of clothes, or the “cold water cure,” a form of torture where water is slowly dripped on a person’s forehead, often causing severe mental health issues. Reforms came by way of citizens, who in 1846 urged the state to allow incarcerated men to have access to tobacco and visitation. The state legislature went a step further and provided a Bible to all incarcerated individuals, permitted religious worship on Sundays, required state inspectors to check Sing Sing four times a year, and required the warden to keep a log of all complaints. These reforms were far from establishing a humane correctional system, but they were a step in the right direction.
A large percentage, about seventy-two percent, of incarcerated men at Sing Sing are from New York City. The state average of incarcerated individuals in maximum-security facilities from New York City jails is 60.7%. As aforementioned, the city currently comprises 42% of the state’s population, so individuals from New York City are overrepresented in the state’s prison system. This overrepresentation must be addressed. But until then, the large percent of New York City residents in maximum-security facilities, like Sing Sing, demands accessibility to these facilities from the city.
The proximity of Sing Sing Correctional Facility to New York City makes visitation easier for families in the city who have to rely on public transportation. Ossining is less than 40 miles from New York City, and a one way off peak train ticket from Grand Central Terminal to Ossining is $9.75. From the station, Sing Sing is less than a mile away, ensuring a low-priced cab ride.
Compared to other maximum-security facilities, Sing Sing is quite cheap and easy to access. Besides Sing Sing, the two maximum-security male state prisons closest to New York City are the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, and Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville. Both are approximately 70 miles from New York City. There is no easy way to travel to Green Haven without a car–there are no nearby train stops from the city and no large bus lines, so families and friends must rely on private transportation or an expensive cab service. Travel to Downstate is available by public transportation, via a $15.25 off peak train to New Hamburg and a 5.5-mile drive from the station to the facility. Families of incarcerated females in a maximum-security facility can pay $11.75 for a train ticket from New York City to Bedford Hills, the location of the only New York state female maximum-security facility, and then take a 1.2 mile cab from the station to the facility. For a spouse and children, the journey could easily become quite costly. These are, of course, some of the closest maximum-security facilities in the state to New York City. There are other facilities like Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, NY, that is 360 miles from the city. On average, male maximum-security facilities are over 200 miles from the city.
Limiting weekend visitation is an effort to keep visitors to a controllable number on any given day. Families and friends who have normal job hours hoping to visit would be unlikely to be able to take the time to visit Sing Sing on a weekday, given long processing times before and after visitation. Therefore many families and friends prefer visiting on weekends or are only able to visit on weekends. Consequently, weekend visitation times are important.
Although the precise goal of incarceration has not been clearly defined by the state, the actions of lawmakers have led the Pew Center on the States Report to define four goals of incarceration: punishment, removal of the accused from society, determent of citizens to commit crimes, and chiefly, to avoid future crimes through rehabilitation. Visitation is vital to the goal of rehabilitation for many incarcerated individuals. The positive effects of visitation are well known. The Minnesota Department of Corrections studied over 15,000 persons released from the state’s prisons between 2003 and 2007. They found that those who were visited in prison were less likely to recidivate: 13% less for felony reconvictions and 25% less for technical violations. Greater frequency of visits, a larger support network of visitors, visits close to release dates, and visits by family and clergy had the largest impact on reducing recidivism. Because visitation is so beneficial, states that work to make visitation easier for families and friends of incarcerated individuals are therefore helping to reduce the chance of a formerly incarcerated individual recidivating, saving the state funds and potentially creating safer communities.
Because the benefits to visitation are well established, it is in the best interest of states to place incarcerated individuals in facilities near their families and friends. It is also vital for states to establish affordable transportation for families to correctional facilities. Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a model for other New York state prisons in its location and availability to New York City, the home of many individuals incarcerated at the prison.
Brian, Denis. Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005.
Cheli, Guy. Sing Sing Prison. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
“The Effects of Visitation on Offender Recidivism.” Minnesota Department of Corrections. November 2011.
“Facility Listing.” New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Accessed April 28, 2013. www.doccs.ny.gov/faclist.html.
Lowy, Franklin D., Allison E. Aiello, Meera Bhat, Vicki D. Johnson-Lawrence, Mei-Ho Lee, Earl Burrell, Lester N. Wright, Glenny Vasquez and Elaine L. Larson. “Staphylococcus Aureus Colonization and Infection in New York State Prisons.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 196 no. 6 (Sep. 15, 2007): 911-918.
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Pew Center on the States. State of Recidivism: the Revolving Door of America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011.
 Denis Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Guy Cheli, Sing Sing Prison (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), 48.
 Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison, 35.
 Franklin D. Lowy, Allison E. Aiello, Meera Bhat, Vicki D. Johnson-Lawrence, Mei-Ho Lee, Earl Burrell, Lester N. Wright, Glenny Vasquez and Elaine L. Larson, “Staphylococcus Aureus Colonization and Infection in New York State Prisons,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 196 no. 6 (Sep. 15, 2007): 913.
 “Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit Trip Planner+,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority, accessed April 28, 2013, www.tripplanner.mta.info.
 “Facility Listing,” New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, accessed April 28, 2013, www.doccs.ny.gov/faclist.html.
 “MTA NYCT Trip Planner+.”
 “Facility Listing.”
 Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: the Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011), 6.
 “The Effects of Prison Visitation on Offender Recidivism,” Minnesota Department of Corrections, November 2011.