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 .
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.
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.