Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Up The River ~ Ossining Part Two

The exhibit was interesting.

Handcrafted by prisoners --stabbing weapons.

Sing Sing prisoner Harry Smiler was the first to be fried in the chair (this is just a model of the original.) On a summer day in 1891, Harry was the first of four condemned criminals to be executed. By 1907 all executions for NYC area prisoners were assigned to Sing Sing, which had expanded for the purpose, becoming The Big House. Former popular execution sites included the island that the Statue of Liberty now stands on. If you were doomed, you were sent Up The River, your final journey or Last Mile.

Depressing cells.

Really depressing cell from the 1820's. This was a dark dank 7 foot by maybe 3 or 4 foot space. I peered inside and saw, crumpled in one corner, a Cheetos bag. Who knew they had Cheetos back then? Actually the prisoners were given coffee and mush and other things. But no snack foods.

There were a lot of bad punishments and this one wasn't the worst one by any stretch of the imagination -- in fact it was probably the nicest punishment back in the old days when Sing Sing was called The House of Fear. Back then the philosophy was, the worst prison is the best prison.

John Cheever made Ossining his hometown in the 1950's and taught there. He wrote Falconer a story of a college professor who ends up in a prison (based on Sing Sing) for killing his bad brother. Falconer is the only Cheever novel I've read --it was very good.

There's a certain amount of negative energy when you have a huge prison near your home. There's no getting around this, and it's probably healthy to indulge in a little denial when you live in a prison town. I find that prison towns all over NY State have this same feeling in the air. You have a large building in town that houses a large overcrowded population of generally unhappy humans --how could this not effect the town in some way? One local told me you have to put it out of your mind when you can, and try to be more upbeat in little ways. He works in a deli and sees women and children coming through on visits. He tries to be extra nice to these customers. While I was there, one little girl leaving the prison grounds with her mother told me she had been to see her Papa. She was just happily announcing it to everyone. She'd seen her papa.

A small house just steps away from the prison.

Millions of American children have an incarcerated parent. At Sing Sing there is a state of the art Family Work's children's visiting center that also provides parenting classes for fathers. Sing Sing also has a privately funded college education program and every year has a graduation ceremony for inmates who get their bachelor degrees. The inmates with degrees who are not paroled become teachers on the inside.