In 1914, Dr. Amos O. Squire accepted a full time position as chief physician at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Thanks to public fascination with the prison system, Squire became a minor celebrity in Ossining and began to record his experiences in writing following his retirement. Through numerous newspaper interviews and the final manuscript of his autobiography published in 1935, Sing Sing Doctor, Dr. Squire offered little known insight into prison healthcare in the early 1900’s.
Squire described specific patients, cases, and responsibilities encountered during his employment. Following his resignation in 1925, Squire began to write lectures on criminology and published these works in 1931, with titles such as “The Prison and the Prisoner,” and“Why People Commit Crime and How to Meet the Problem,” Squire became an integral employee of Sing Sing Prison and an eventual advocate for prison rehabilitation.
Childhood and Early Career
Squire graduated from Haldane High School during 1892 in Cold Spring, New York, soon taking medical entrance examinations with intent to attend the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Problems with eyesight prompted a year-long deferral before Squire began his medical schooling in 1895. Squire graduated from Columbia in 1899, desiring to open a private practice with no plans of entering the prison system. An internship at Vanderbilt Clinic and Bellevue Hospital led Squire to begin this practice in the town of Ossining, New York, where by happenstance he met the previous chief physician of Sing Sing.
Squire’s predecessor invited him to attend a show performed by inmates at the prison in 1900, a recent rehabilitative reform offering arts and theater programs. After spending time inside of Sing Sing, Squire began to wonder “in what way convicts differ from law-abiding citizens, physiologically and psychologically,” and soon desired to work for the prison itself. Conveniently, the chief physician took a leave of absence and offered Squire a position as interim chief in 1910. Further enticing Squire to work in prison healthcare, criminology research garnered the attention of many scientists and scholars during the first decade of the twentieth century. Correctional medicine, as prison healthcare later became known, offered guaranteed employment and a stable salary. Sing Sing Prison was Squire’s only employer until the time of his resignation in 1925.
At first the inmates took advantage of Squire’s youth and inexperience, faking illnesses in order to whisper to each other while waiting in line at the hospital. Squire described that the inmates would “congregate on the hospital stairs, out of sight of the guards.” Although Squire opposed the inmates’ forced silence, his job required him to oblige and thus he “started ladling out disagreeable but harmless doses to the men who pretended to be ill.” Rather than spitefulness, the majority of prisoners began to respect Squire’s assertive behavior and soon Squire acquired a favorable reputation. Upon the previous chief physician’s return, Squire continued at Sing Sing as a consultant until his predecessor eventually retired in 1914. Amos O. Squire worked at the prison for 15 years before resigning in 1925 to become the chief medical examiner of Westchester County. Despite his resignation, Squire retained a position on the council and remained involved with the governance of Sing Sing Prison.
During the early 1900’s, prison doctors and criminologists were concerned with the emergence of a criminal class and the possibility of a predictable “criminal type.” Criminologists sought to explain crime through statistical analysis and biological evidence, while prison doctors’ intimate knowledge of the criminals themselves offered details essential to criminology research. Squire approached this topic “from the point of view of Psychiatry…[to give] promise of lessening crime, or [improving] the mental and physical conditions of the criminal.” Although Squire was not a trained psychiatrist, the mental health of inmates was of utmost importance to his research. In opposition to certain doctors whose misuse of statistical analysis led them to believe in a uniform criminal appearance, Squire claimed that no unifying trait was discovered during his years at the prison. Instead, he highlighted the most common physical ailments of inmates: ocular problems, poor dental health, tonsil removal and nasal obstruction, and syphilis. With this data, he hoped to improve the overall efficiency of healthcare in the prison and the ability to increase the quality of treatment.
The chief physician was responsible for the general healthcare of the prison population as well as special tasks such as observing isolation cells, officiating executions, and performing entrance exams. In 1915, Squire and his team performed 678 minor and major operations and wrote 15,757 prescriptions. Due to the breadth of work this job requires, the chief physician reports directly to the warden. Therefore, the physician belongs to the prison’s executive government. According to a proposal to the National Committee on Prisons in 1916, assistant physicians, psychiatrists, dentists, medical clerks, laboratory assistants, nurses, and stenographers all report to the authority of the chief physician. This proposal sought to reorganize prison healthcare at Sing Sing by investing in the construction of a new hospital.
Each day, the chief physician must visit the “dark cells.” At the time of Squire’s employment, 18 solitary confinement cells existed at Sing Sing. Devoid of light and human interaction, these cells often exacerbated mental or physical illness. Rations were bread and water alone, occasionally contributing to malnutrition. Squire described completing his rounds by knocking on each door, without knowing whether the prisoner inside was ill, dead, or mentally unstable. It was the physician’s job to assess the relative wellbeing of each inmate and report back regarding the effectiveness of rations and isolation. One morning, an inmate in the isolation cell “began to curse [him] violently, although he’d never even seen [Squire]…and the keeper…chalked up an additional term of solitary confinement.” Although time in the dark cells was determined by hearing, the keepers often skipped the “formality” and assigned sentences at their leisure.
In addition to the physician’s traditional duties, influenza and disease outbreaks tested their ingenuity and skill. Prisoners were held in close quarters during their time at the mess hall and even within their cells. Dirty slop buckets and constant proximity made disease spread rapidly. During Squire’s employment, a certain medication required for treating a disease outbreak became unavailable. A new, untested medication created in a state laboratory aimed to treat the same disease and quickly garnered Squire’s attention. Squire approached the sick inmates and explained the situation, describing the potential benefits for greater humanity of testing this medication. If the medication was either successful in treating the disease or created new ailments, Squire would report these findings back to the state. From this information, the state could produce the medication for the public or attempt to reformulate. The inmates agreed to be “guinea pigs,” and Squire’s improvisation resulted in their recovery.
Written by Kathryn Ziegner
(1) “Connecticut Rare Books,” http://www.connecticutrarebooks.com.
(2) Guy Cheli, Images of America: Sing Sing Prison (New York: Arcadia Publishing, 2030).
(3) Harper’s Weekly (1867).
(4) G.W. Pach, The New York City Public Library.
(5) Bain News Service, Library of Congress.