The original Sing Sing cell block first housed prisoners in 1828. By 1830, a hospital, kitchen, and chapel were added to complete the structure. During the 1830’s through the turn of the twentieth century, most hospital beds were housed on the top floor of the main structure. By 1900, the new hospital building was erected. Within the hospital, physicians, nurses, and inmate volunteers worked to maintain the health of the prison population. Dentistry, patient rooms, a pharmacy wing, and outpatient clinics were also created to allow for the treatment of chronic disease and tooth decay. In the main hospital wing, physicians employed by Sing Sing performed two essential duties: entrance examinations and urgent care. Although the hospital allowed for certain treatments, some conditions were beyond the capabilities of the Sing Sing facilities. According to records from the National Committee on Prisons in 1916, the hospital was equipped to treat most illnesses and perform emergency surgeries such as appendectomies, but specialized procedures such as brain surgery were not performed on site. Should a situation arise when the amenities at Sing Sing’s hospital were not sufficient, prisoners were sent to Matteawan State Hospital nearby and returned to Sing Sing at their recovery .
Late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century prisons were places of unbridled misconduct, overcrowding, illicit activity, and disease. Ironically, within prisons constructed before germ theory, the push for solitary confinement was not affected by the knowledge that human contact spreads disease; rather, the purpose of constructing individual cells was to prevent the spread of moral disease from inmate to inmate. The notion that constant silence and solitude can instill virtue, although it seems draconian, was a driving force behind penal reform that inspired the construction of silent and separate prisons around the world. A prison that was both silent and separate forbade communication between inmates, or speech in general, and housed each inmate in his or her own cell. Comparison of varying silent and separate prison systems gives context to reform taking place specifically within prisons such as Sing Sing.
The pseudoscience of phrenology became an integral part of prison healthcare in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Scientists, criminologists, and psychiatrists began to theorize that the shape of a person’s head directly correlated with their character and behavior. Phrenology asserted that the “brain is the organ of the mind…and without brain there is no manifestation either of feelings, or intellectual functions.” Earlier philosophers such as Hippocrates speculated that the brain controlled psychological properties, and phrenologists sought to understand this belief by providing scientific evidence. Specific portions of the skull were thought to control certain aspects of a person’s behavioral traits. Phrenologists believed the physical shape of the brain corresponded with physical bumps on the skull, and observing the external head could determine the internal mind.
The prison physician was responsible for both officiating at capital punishment and monitoring condemned inmates prior to their executions. This responsibility encompassed observing the health of prisoners in the holding cells, treating acute illnesses, and directing the electrician to flip the switch on the electric chair at the correct time. Post-mortem, the physician performed an autopsy to confirm the cause of death and analyze the efficiency of the chair itself. In this way, the physician became the primary employee involved with capital punishment, bearing both psychological and physical responsibilities.
The 1842 construction of Pentonville Model Prison in north London coincided with an era of prison reform in the United States that favored both silent and separate penal institutions. Designed in the exact style of American silent prisons, Pentonville was meant to model the enforcement of silence for numerous other English prisons. The Penitentiary Act of 1779 in England sought to usher in an era of uniformity among prisons by standardizing cell size and lodging prisoners in separate spaces, creating an overall “sterile and silent environment” that would stamp out the spread of vice. Pentonville is an example of an English prison that, among others, was part of an exchange during which American and English prison reform and architectural movements informed one another. It can be understood as one of the prime English counterparts to American silent prisons that promoted architectural change to make their inmates virtuous; it is thus a valuable tool for comparison with American silent prisons such as Eastern, Auburn, and Sing Sing.