Sing Sing as a Factory during the Nineteenth Century

Three of the fundamental goals of the nineteenth century American penitentiary were the convict’s moral reformation, his employment, and the economic self-sufficiency of the penitentiary; in practice these goals conflicted and at Sing Sing the latter two took precedence over the former. Sing Sing during the nineteenth century practiced a version of the Auburn prison system corrupted by contractors incentivized by profits and prisoners who beat the system. During the day prisoners would work together in a congregate factory setting while at night they were separated and to be silent. In reality silence was haphazardly enforced and privileged or well-connected prisoners were able to avoid the harsh application of prison discipline. The factory labor system stripped away Sing Sing’s reform-oriented mission to reveal a single-minded pursuit of profits. Sing Sing as a penitentiary was punitive rather than penitent, and “treat[ed] the convict as a slave” who the wardens, superintendents, and contractors cynically forced to work in the pursuit of profits. Prison guards tortured prisoners who did not work satisfactorily; prisoners worked long hours at grueling labor; Sing Sing was a nineteenth century industrial plantation.
Sing Sing’s Labor System
From its opening in 1826, Sing Sing operated under the Auburn System, in which inmate labor is an integral part. During the nineteenth century Sing Sing transitioned from marble quarrying to a contract labor system which utilized hundreds of inmates in factory-style workshops to fulfill quotas from third-party contractors. Contractors then sold these prison-made goods for a profit. Following backlash from labor unions, in 1894 the New York legislature banned the contract labor system by constitutional amendment and Sing Sing used the inmates for state needs that did not conflict with private industry.
The marble quarry near Sing Sing initially seemed to be the solution to the problem of inmate labor and self-sufficiency. Sing Sing’s close proximity to the New York City market and the hard labor required in marble quarrying were ideal for a profitable, reforming venture. After inmates quarried the marble, it could be quickly shipped to New York City to be sold. Once Sing Sing began to compete with free laborers, however, it quickly met resistance. In response to the protests of the marble workers, Sing Sing diversified its production to include “contracts in coopering, shoemaking…saddle hardware, locks, hats, and cane seating.” Sing Sing maintained this diversification until the abolition of contract labor: for example, in 1874 it had workshops for cabinetmaking, stove forging, shoemaking, saddler hardware, and chain making. This diversification allowed Sing Sing to maintain profits while not competing exclusively with any one industry. By competing with many industries, however, prison labor at Sing Sing created many enemies in the labor unions, which led to the unions lobbying for the ban on new contracts in 1884.
For the majority of the nineteenth century Sing Sing operated under a contract labor system. This turned Sing Sing into a repository for forced labor, as private contractors supplied the materials and jobs for the inmates while the state merely supplied the work force for a fee below the wages of free labor. Outside contractors saw convicts as a “permanent supply of cheap labor” and ran factory-style operations within the prison. They paid the state for the use of inmate labor but kept the profits from selling the finished product. The contractors in the prison oversaw the inmates during the workday and could discipline them as needed.
Incentivizing the Prisoners to Work
As inmates cannot receive the primary incentive for factory workers, wages, contractors and prison officials had to find other ways to incentive inmate labor or simply ignore regulations regarding inmate compensation. Corporal punishment was a go-to solution to unruly behavior. Warden Elam Lynds was notorious for his strict discipline enforced by corporal punishment during Sing Sing’s early years. The cat, water torture, paddle, and ball-and-chain were signature methods of punishment. These methods, however, worked from a fear of punishment rather than a desire to work.
From the late 1840s onward contractors rewarded prisoners for producing above their quota in what was known as the “over-stint system.” Contractors rewarded prisoners with money, which they would receive after leaving prison, luxury goods, and most importantly, tobacco. Tobacco was an especially potent incentive as many convicts were addicted to it. This physiological incentive provided a different angle from which contractors could motivate prisoners to work, and avoided directly paying inmates for their labor.
Advantages of Sing Sing’s Convict Labor over Free Labor
Sing Sing enjoyed many advantages over its free labor competitors that led to the backlash which eventually ended Sing Sing’s role as a factory. Its work force could not outright refuse to work; in fact work often served as a means to find purpose in prison and to pass the time. While a prisoner could attempt to transfer to another work detail, they remained in the confines of Sing Sing, as opposed to a free laborer who could migrate if need be. Sing Sing’s labor force was much larger than contemporary factories and lent itself to the establishment of a large, industrial complex. Cotton mills and steel mills of the time employed several hundred people, and even the largest steel mills in the country had over 1,000 employees compared to Sing Sing’s over 1,200 convict laborers. This large, cheap workforce allowed Sing Sing to undercut the prices of free laborers giving prison contractors a big advantage when competing with free labor. Corporal punishment and cheap, non-monetary incentives could not be applied with the same effect to free laborers because the controlled environment of the prison altered the worth of these items. The unique situation of the Sing Sing convicts-turned-laborers enabled contractors to manipulate them in ways not possible with free labor.
In many ways Sing Sing was an ideal factory: located near natural resources and a large market, it was equipped with a large labor force and could employ drastic and cheap methods to motivate its workers. In fact, its unique location and huge labor supply may have made it the largest factory in the world at the time. The temptation for contractors was too great, however, and the potential for profit displaced the role of Sing Sing as a penitentiary. Sing Sing’s success as a factory was its undoing, as the free laborers who were forced to compete with it finally persevered in banning the lucrative and competitive contract labor system. Sing Sing’s time as a factory illustrates the conflict of interest between self-sufficiency and the goals of a penitentiary. Its history shows the result of a clash between ideals and profit, with money being the clear winner.