In Sing Sing’s Hometown, Many Dream of Day ‘the Big House’ Closes
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Sing Sing has not had an escape in 25 years. Unlike some New York State communities, Ossining, which is increasingly upscale, does not depend heavily on its prison as a source of jobs.
Published: April 24, 2011
OSSINING, N.Y. — In economically ailing communities in upstate New York, residents and lawmakers are bracing themselves for bad news: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s list of prisons that will be closed to save money.
- Times Topic: Prisons and Prisoners
Prisons are a major source of jobs in a number of upstate towns and villages, and residents have warned about the impact of any closings.
“The area I represent in northern New York, it’s very rural and we built an economy around these facilities,” State Senator Betty Little, a Republican who represents much of the Adirondacks, said in January.
But in Ossining, an evolving Hudson River village that is a 45-minute commute from Midtown Manhattan, legislators and residents are making the opposite argument: They are pleading with the governor to shut down the prison in their midst.
Of course, it is no ordinary prison. It is Sing Sing, the spot where Willie Sutton spent time for robbing banks, where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair for spying and where Hollywood gangsters like James Cagney were dispatched to spend time “up the river.”
Local officials argue that the passage of time has made Sing Sing an awkward fit for its locale. What was once a blue-collar village suitable for the rough-and-tumble of prisoners and guards has become an upscale suburb fit for backyard cocktail parties and the Don Draper-like commuters depicted in television’s “Mad Men.” (He lived in Ossining until his divorce.)
“They would never have built a maximum-security prison in a place like this today,” said Richard Wishnie, a Westchester County legislator.
Several local and state lawmakers wrote a letter to Mr. Cuomo this month asking that he close “the Big House,” as Sing Sing has been called, and move its 1,725 inmates to a new or refurbished prison upstate, where communities would welcome the jobs.
They proposed that Sing Sing’s 60-acre riverside property be turned into condos and shops that will generate more taxes for local government and elevate property values.
What gave the letter writers and many residents glimmers of hope was the budget deal struck between the governor and the Legislature, which required the elimination of 3,700 prison beds for a saving of $72 million.
But officials in the governor’s office and the state prison system suggest that any thoughts of closing Sing Sing may be pie-in-the-sky.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because no firm sites have been chosen for closure, these officials pointed out that the executive order the governor issued specifically emphasized the elimination of minimum- and medium-security prisons, where there are more empty beds, and not maximum-security prisons, like Sing Sing, for murderers and others convicted of major crime.
But that seemingly insurmountable hurdle has not stopped many of Ossining’s 24,000 residents from making a forceful appeal. Sandra Galef, a Democratic assemblywoman who represents the village, cannot forget the day in 1977 that the governor at the time, Hugh L. Carey, traveled by helicopter to Ossining and in response to requests by town leaders, promised to close Sing Sing.
Residents crave the transformation of the village center’s landscape, still gritty in spots, and the hefty taxes that would finance Ossining’s schools and upkeep.
“The property the prison is on is one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate in the world,” said Eric Schatz, a real estate broker who lives one block away.
“The views are phenomenal. You’re looking across the river at parkland, and in the evening you look across and the only light you see is a lighthouse. The color of sunsets there you won’t find anywhere else in the world.”
His rapturous prose may carry overtones of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” but the campaign to close Sing Sing has more to do with the world described by John Cheever, the bard of suburbia, who long lived in Ossining.
Once a heavily industrial village, Ossining has for decades now drawn hundreds of transplants from New York City looking for homes a modest commute from Manhattan that come with glorious river views. “Up the River” has evolved from a synonym for going to prison to one for trading Manhattan’s hurly-burly for waterside calm.
Jobs for Ossining residents seem to be less of an issue. Mr. Schatz, noting that because housing prices are high, says that few of the 824 correctional employees reside in town. So closing the prison, he argues, would not hurt local employment.
Most guards, he and others said, live upstate and cycle through Sing Sing for training, renting apartments in nearby cities or occupying a dozen trailers on the prison property.
But legislators representing New York City and advocates for prisoners’ rights have long maintained that putting prisons hundreds of miles away from the inmates’ homes in the city deprives them of family ties that could help keep them out of trouble when they are released.
Sing Sing opened around 1825 when rivers were the chief mode of heavy transport and factories usually settled on the banks. The surrounding village was also called Sing Sing, after an Indian tribe, but by the early 1900s the prison had become so notorious — consumers thought that a product manufactured in Sing Sing must have been made by inmates — that the village and the larger town, which includes part of Briarcliff Manor, changed their names to Ossining.
Today the prison is an imposing fortress, a cluster of brick cellblocks surrounded by concrete walls that are 25 feet tall in stretches and are crowned at intervals by green, gazebo-like guard towers.
While it has been 25 years since an escape (Sutton broke out in 1932), residents say the prison by its very appearance remains a chilling presence.
“It scares me a little,” said Ana Ribeiro, 18, a waitress at Cidade Cafe on Main Street. “They have everything under control, but if they do have the option, I’d rather they take the prison out of here.”
Supporters of shutting Sing Sing envision the prison’s being leveled, with perhaps one building saved to be a museum that would draw tourists to Ossining as Alcatraz, a prison that closed decades ago, does to San Francisco. A new prison would then be built upstate to hold the inmates.
But a burly prison guard, sitting outside a trailer with two colleagues and speaking only on the condition that he not be identified because of department rules against talking with reporters, pointed out one drawback to idea of shutting the famous prison.
“You couldn’t build a place like this, with all the concrete and steel, for all the money in the world,” he said.