Sing Sing prison called exceptional tourist attraction


OSSINING, N.Y. - The gaunt, gray walls stretch along the east bank of the Hudson River for more than 400 feet, broken only by the rusting bars that despairing prisoners once stared through.

Tight coils of razor wire and infrared detectors protect this roofless shell of a building. Armed guards stare down from watchtowers.

This may not sound like a natural setting for a tourist attraction, but then this is Sing Sing, the original "big house" and possibly America's most famous functioning prison.

Prison highlights

Local promoters and state officials want to turn part of the 177-year-old prison into a museum, where visitors would be able to see reconstructions of 3 1/2 -foot-wide cells and the original "Old Sparky," the electric chair where Cold War spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed.

"The thing is, if you're given a lemon, try to make lemonade," said Walter Ludlum, chairman of the local group pushing the museum plan, which estimates that Sing Sing could draw upward of 100,000 visitors a year.

"It's believed to have the potential to be the biggest tourist attraction in the Hudson Valley short of West Point," Ludlum said.

At a cost of at least $6 million, Sing Sing's original cellblock, built of marble quarried by the convicts who became the jail's first inmates, would be restored to its original condition.

In addition, a nearby power plant and garage would be converted into an "interpretive center" where visitors would learn not only about Sing Sing's history but the evolution of American penology from a philosophy of harsh punishment to a belief in trying to reform criminals.

Alcatraz popular

Amid an explosion of new American museums, one of the most surprising developments is the growing popularity of prisons as tourist attractions. Rendered obsolete by newer facilities, many aging 19th-century prisons have been shut down in recent years.

Although outdated, old prisons usually are sturdy, having been built to last.

One of the first jails to find new life as a visitor destination was Alcatraz, a former federal penitentiary on a small island in San Francisco Bay, and Sing Sing's chief rival as the country's best-known penitentiary.

Alcatraz, which the National Park Service opened to the public in 1973, draws 1.3 million visitors a year, a limit imposed to prevent harm to the island's bird habitat.

But even less famous lockups have found second lives as museums. The neo-Gothic hulk of Moundsville prison in West Virginia, which was turned into a training center for prison guards and other law-enforcement officials after closing in 1995, includes a museum featuring exhibits about executions, dramatic escapes and displays of "shanks" and other jailhouse weapons.

'Do hard time'

The museum, which draws about 32,000 visitors yearly, markets itself with the slogan "Do hard time."

Some former prisons appeal to history buffs. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in 1829 and now open for tours, cites its importance in the prison reform movement, with its early emphasis on solitary confinement of inmates as a means of fostering penitence - the origin of the word "penitentiary."

The popularity of such museums is testament to people's fascination with crime and punishment, said Craig Glassner, the Park Service ranger who supervises Alcatraz.

"We like to experience things, but we don't want to put ourselves in danger," Glassner said. "There is an element of the unknown. Most people haven't been in a prison, but they're curious about what it's like."

And, he added, they're curious about seeing the real-life settings where Hollywood movies were shot.

At Alcatraz, that includes The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Rock.

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, attracts tourists who want to see the former prison where The Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One were filmed.

Sing Sing has its own Hollywood resume, including the 1938 James Cagney classic Angels With Dirty Faces, but it is different from current prison museums in one important respect. Most no longer house prisoners. Sing Sing has 2,300 convicts, most of them in its maximum-security wing.

And the state has no intention of closing the prison, according to Brian Fischer, Sing Sing's superintendent. Nonetheless, state officials support the museum proposal.

"We believe this could be an excellent opportunity to educate the public," Fischer said. "I don't think Sing Sing is better or worse than any other prison, it's just better-known."

Besides, he adds, having such a museum in a working prison would give it an advantage over other prison museums.

"It adds to the flavor of the place," he said, standing next to coils of razor wire. "You're not going to get that anywhere else."

Possibly the only other working prison with its own museum is the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where Dead Man Walking was filmed. But the museum, whose exhibits include such prison contraband as a whiskey still that was made from a coffee pot, is outside the prison gates.

Main attraction

At Sing Sing, the main attraction of a museum would be the prison's original 1825 building, well within the prison grounds.

The prison, named for the local Sint Sinck Indians, was built to house New York City's large criminal class. In those early years, convicts were brought north from New York City by boat, giving rise to the slang phrase "up the river."

With its stark walls and slit windows, Sing Sing quickly gained a reputation as a hard place to serve time. Convicts spent their days in nearby quarries and their nights in unlighted and unheated cells that measured 3 1/2 by 6 feet.

Later, the prison was one of the first to use the electric chair, which was ensconced in a separate Death House that has since been turned into a vocational training center and would not be open to visitors.

Among the 614 convicts to die in Sing Sing's chair was Ruth Snyder, whose 1924 execution was captured by a New York Daily News photographer who secretly strapped a camera to his ankle.

The original cellblock, last used to house inmates in 1943, has stood as a burned-out shell since a fire more than a decade ago. Because it carries landmark status, it cannot be demolished.

Accessibility challenge

But making it accessible to visitors will be a challenge, Sing Sing's superintendent admits. Currently, a 12-foot-wide network of razor wire, infrared motion detectors and trip wires stands between the cellblock and the narrow walkway that visitors will use.

Also, some method will have to be devised to screen visitors from inmates, who play softball on a prison field next to the 1825 building.

"Visitors have a tendency to gawk, and that's not right," Fischer said. "And there are some inmates who would say something to the visitors. We don't want dialogue between visitors and inmates."

Despite the hurdles, Fischer thinks the original building should be made accessible to the public.

"In the end, it'll be worth it," he said. "Right now, this is an important historical site that no one can see. But because it's a landmark, it's going to be here for as long as we can foresee. People should have access to it."

Stevenson Swanson is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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