In 1825, the State of New York purchased a large plot of land overlooking the Hudson River. Covering 526,000sq m (5.6 million sq ft) the site wouldn’t become home to a cultural institution however, rather one of the most famous correctional facilities anywhere in the world – Sing Sing Prison.
Still in operation 195 years later, plans are in the works to open a major museum and education centre dedicated to the prison’s history and the reform of the US justice system.
“There are a number of important prisons around the country and there are some outstanding prison museums in existence,” says Brent Glass, a national leader in the preservation, interpretation and promotion of history, and the project’s interim executive director. “Sing Sing is unique because every chapter in criminal justice history has had some of its pages written there both in terms of punishment and in reform.”
Glass, the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, has served as a senior advisor to more than 70 cultural and educational institutions across the US, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Presidio Trust and Washington’s Diplomacy Center.
For almost five years, Glass’ focus has been on Sing Sing, where he’s been working to make the US$50m project a reality.
Working closely with the Department of Corrections, the phased project will open up two of the active prison’s buildings to the public, telling the story of 200 years of incarceration while also encouraging visitors to reimagine criminal justice.
Called the Sing Sing Prison Museum, the former Powerhouse, located outside of the prison walls, will be transformed into the museum’s “Preview Center”, while the prison’s historic original cellblock will be made accessible to outside visitors for the first time in its near 200 year existence.
“The Powerhouse provided electrical power to the prison for more than 30 years,” explains Glass. “The other building – the original cellblock – was built in 1825 by prisoners. It functioned as the main residential structure for about 100 years through the 19th and early 20th century. That structure is a ruin now but there’s enough of the building left that we want to bring people in to see this extraordinary, very monumental space that at one point housed 1,200 men and, for a brief time, women.”
An integrated design team made up of Ennead Architects and Thinc Design, as well as restorative justice and trauma-informed specialists Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, have created the concept plan for the museum, which will also act as a site for programmes on criminal justice and a venue for reentry counselling for formerly incarcerated men and women.
According to Glass, the museum will have two main goals: “We want to tell this extraordinary story of Sing Sing Prison, which covers just about every chapter in criminal justice history. We also want to engage our visitors in contemporary issues concerning criminal justice and hopefully reimagine the criminal justice system in the US, taking action to build a better society.
“People will hopefully leave thinking about why we have prisons and what their purpose is. We want to leave that question open-ended enough so that when someone comes and learns about the history of Sing Sing, they’re also challenged to think about today’s criminal justice system. They will come away, hopefully, with some new ideas about why we have prisons.”
The Preview Center is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. Covering 2,600sq ft (241.5sq m), the space will be large enough to house temporary exhibits while introducing a number of key concept to messages to its visitors. In addition to exhibits and programmes, the top floor of the Powerhouse will be dedicated to a conference space enitrely dedicated to the criminal justice and reform system.
The second lager phase of development will see the Cellblock made accessible by connecting it directly to the Powerhouse with a 300ft-long (91.5m) tunnel.
“We’re actually going to break into the prison by building this connecting corridor,” says Glass. “The cost of that could be anywhere from US$7m to US$10m depending on the materials used and the method of construction. We’re not going to fully restore the cell block, but we are going to make it stable enough so that visitors can come in safely and see this extraordinary monumental space.”
The prevailing form of punishment at Sing Sing Prison followed the “Auburn System” in which prisoners were confined to solitary cells at night and worked silently in “congregant” labour groups during the day. The Cellblock, while completely empty, will tell this story, with technologies such as virtual reality and digital protection being considered to create an immersive experience that allows visitors to better understand what the block would have been like with more than 1,200 inhabitants.
“Right now it’s quite an eloquent, almost Cathedral-like, space. But at one point it was filled with cells in which people were imprisoned,” says Glass. “We want to challenge people’s imaginations – what did incarceration mean 200 years ago compared to what it means today?”
An educational approach
Sites such as prisons often try to appeal to a broad audience as an attraction, with offerings such as ghost tours and horrible histories included. Glass however, doesn’t want to sensationalise the subject.
“We don’t have to improve on the story of Sing Sing,” says Glass. “We want to treat our visitors at a high level and there are some sensational stories already there. Over two centuries, some very high profile men and women were incarcerated at Sing Sing. Probably the most notable from an international standpoint were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were found guilty of espionage during the Cold War period and are the only people in US history ever to be executed under espionage charges.
“We’re trying to address a number of constituencies and stakeholders on the presentation of the project. Obviously, there are people who have gone to prison and their families but also the correctional officers and staff members who work at the prison. Another group of people are those who have been victims of crime and survived crime and their families. We’re speaking to and consulting with all these constituencies to makes sure that we tell a story that is very nuanced in many ways and complex. We’re not taking a partisan position.”
Focusing on the real issue behind crime and incarceration, this leads the museum experience down a particular path.
“We want to identify where the criminal justice system works and where it doesn’t work,” explains Glass. “We want to let people know this isn’t a new issue. This has been going on in our national conversation for at least 200 years. What is justice? What are prisons for? Are they for punishment? Are they for rehabilitation? What happens when someone leaves prison?”
For the community
The museum plan is very much community-driven. From the board to local schools, the Ossining community is getting its say when it comes to the museum’s development.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the body which managed the 1,500 inmates currently held in Sing Sing, is a key partner in the plans. The village of Ossining where the prison is located is also involved along with a number of bodies representing local and state government.
In addition to these bodies, the museum’s board – all local to the area – is working with a number of community groups that operate in Ossining and work with prisoners on various rehabilitation programmes.
“There’s an organisation called Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. They’re a group that provides educational programmes for the men at Sing Sing and at other correctional facilities in New York.
“The idea is that many of these people accumulate or earn credit for college degrees. They’ve been working for the past 20 years with the men in these various institutions. Through the programme, more than 800 people have graduated with college degrees.
“There’s another organisation called Rehabilitation Through The Arts, which is a group that produces theatrical performances at Sing Sing and other institutions, giving these men some confidence, morale and skills. Whether or not they actually go into dramatic work outside prison isn’t as important as to what they learning as far as their character and development are concerned.”
The museum is also developing a criminal justice curriculum for local schools, working particularly with Ossining High School and a neighbouring high school in nearby Peekskill.
“Students are going to be one of our biggest sources of attendance,” says Glass. “Most museums have anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of their attendance coming from student visits, so it’s really important to us that we involve students and faculty in the planning of the museum.”
With projected visitor numbers of more than 130,000 people a year when it opens, the museum could prove a big tourist draw for Ossining, with predicted spending for Westchester County totalled at US$24m. Those numbers could increase significantly with the full opening of the museum in 2025, which is easily accessible from New York City.
“We want to have an economic benefit for the local community, encourage tourism to Ossining and want our visitors to stay and go to restaurants and gift shops and visit. It’s a beautiful and historic community right on the Hudson River,” says Glass.
“Because of its location and because there’s always been a sense that we could bring people visiting the state or from New York to this location – It’s a very big pool of potential visitors.
“We’re going to encourage a number of different ways to visit the site. The trains that run from Grand Central Terminal in New York stop very close to the Powerhouse. It’s a 10-minute walk and the train journey is 45 minutes. There’s also a ferry from the other side of the Hudson River that stops right in Ossining.”
So where are we now?: “I’d say we’re in stage ‘1A’,” says Glass. “We have our plan, we have our finances and we have our vision. We’ve worked through our mission statement of who we are. Hopefully, by Q2, we’ll actually start to see some dirt fly and some construction work begin at the Powerhouse.
“The work isn’t going to take very long. We’re talking about a relatively small space. We have to do some roof repairs but we don’t have to reroof the entire building. We also have to replace some windows. Industrial buildings are very flexible spaces and I’m confident we’ll have the museum open by the end of this year.
“All the organisations that are already functioning in the area, including Hudson Links and the dozens that are doing really good work on this subject – will be able to use this institute as a meeting space. We envision events including conferences, seminars, symposiums and lectures taking place at the museum. It will represent a powerhouse of ideas as well as being the Powerhouse of the prison itself.”