Left: Principal Keeper James Connaughton, in uniform, with Lewis E. Lawes when the latter became warden in 1920. Connaughton served as acting warden briefly in 1913. Right: Lawes with Principal Keeper John J, Sheehy who retired in 1941, the same year as did Lawes.


( excerpts )

Born on September 13, 1883, in Elmira, New York, Lewis Lawes. . . considered [the] most progressive warden in penology . . . started his prison career after military service, having grown up in the shadows of the New York State Reformatory, where his father worked as a guard. Lawes's first position was at Clinton Prison in March 1905.

. . . . Lawes took a leave of absence to attend the New York School of Social Work, He met and studied with Katherine B. Davis, who [became] commissioner of corrections of the City of New York. In 1915, Davis installed Lawes as superintendent of the City Reformatory on Hart Island. . . .

The facility that housed the boys and young men was hardly adequate, as it shared Hart Island with a potter's field and a penitentiary for drug addicts and derelicts. The city agreed . . . to relocate the reformatory . . . . in New Hampton in Orange County for the construction of a new reformatory. The young prisoners assisted in all phases of building at New Hampton, as was the case in the building of Sing Sing Prison . . . . the reformatory was operated much like a working farm.

In 1920, at the urging of Gov. Alfred E. Smith, Lawes accepted the wardenship of Sing Sing Prison. Until that time, the office of warden was a political appointment . . . Lawes accepted the office on the grounds that it was not a political job and he would run the prison his own way. . . . Lawes oversaw the complete overhaul of Sing Sing's physical plant . . . he also believed reform and rehabilitation were the first priorities.

Lawes encouraged the use of sports as recreation and also as a way for the inmates to develop an appreciation of rules. He believed that while a prisoner was serving his term, he should not lose contact with the outside world so he would fit in with society upon his release. He arranged for famous people to visit and give speeches to the inmates . . .

Many [movie] stars came to entertain . . . The prisoners presented an annual theatrical performance that was open to the public. Lawes's willingness to treat the prisoners fairly and to meet them halfway on issues gained the inmates' respect. He allowed them to landscape the prison grounds. . . as it gave them a sense of accomplishment.

By the mid-1920s, the prison had become overcrowded . . . . In 1926, the state granted $2,775,000 for additional construction. By 1929, two new cellblocks with 1,366 cells, along with a mess hall and new chapel, were completed. A year later, a laundry, bathhouse, and barbershop were added, and the industrial plant and workshops were completely rebuilt.

By 1936, a school building, hospital, and library with 15,000 were installed. Warden Lawes, who used prisoners to provide most of the tabor, supervised this massive rebuilding, Unlike previous prison construction projects, the prisoners were treated well and paid as much as 30 cents a day . . . .

With the completion of the New Prison on the Hill, the prison's combined total area increased from 14.5 acres to 47.5 acres. . . the most modern and innovative prison of its kind. By 1943, two years after Lawes retired, the last of the prisoners were removed from the old cellblock. The damp, cramped, and unsanitary cells were eliminated for larger, cleaner, and well-lit cells with plumbing and running water.


Leading prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne, named Sing Sing warden in 1914, founded the Mutual Welfare League (motto: Do good, Make good), as a form of limited self-government by inmates and self-help network. MWL activities included athletic teams, field days, bands, musicals, plays and a store with its own "prison currency."

"To accomodate the new prison site, a steep hillside had to be leveled. . . . The foundation of the new prison wall . . . connect[s] existing guard towers. Homes on State Street can be seen in this photograph taken in October 1925."

A 1940s aerial photo, spread over 2 facing pages, shows the then "new" and "old" prison buildings. The photo looks west toward the river. In the two detail sections (from the left and right pages) presented here, the "new" cellblocks are in the foregrounds.

"The new cellblocks were designed with five recessed tiers as show in this 1929 photograph. . . . The cells in the original cellblock were equipped with a small cot, a writing platform and a bucket to use as portable plumbing. . . . Each of the new cells was equipped with a toilet and a sink with running water."

Left: Warden Lawes reads inmate report aloud during 1925 parole board meeting as prisoner, left, and Dr. Amos Squire listen. Right: Warden Lawes, right, poses with inmate players for Black Sheep team photo after it won first place trophy in its baseball league. Note MWL logo on shirts.

NYCHS presents these text and image excerpts from Images of America: Sing Sing Prison by permission of its author Guy Cheli who retains the copyright © and reserves all rights thereunder. For more about his book, contact Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com and/or Ossining Historical Society at www.ossininghistorical.org

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Mark Gado's
Stone Upon Stone:
Sing Sing Prison
1914 - 17
Sing Sing Warden
T. M. Osborne's
Within Prison Walls
Guide to papers
of 1914 - 17
Sing Sing Warden
T. M. Osborne
John Jay Rouse's
Bio of Sing Sing
1920 - 41 Warden
Lewis E. Lawes