Prison is a Cold Place: My Experience at Sing Sing

Kaitlin Mahar

On Tuesday, March 4, 2014, my Voices of Confinement class went on a tour of Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison in Ossining, NY. Having studied prison in class, and speaking to a few former inmates, we were interested to learn from a firsthand perspective what prison was like, how the prisoners behaved, their living conditions, what they did all day, etc.

Photo obtained via Google Earth
Photo obtained via Google Earth

After waiting outside in the thirteen degree weather for about thirty minutes, we were brought into the prison in groups of three, each group experiencing a jarring encounter with a rude officer, who searched us before permitting us to enter the facility. None of us were particularly pleased with how the officer treated us, especially my professors; if officers could be so unpleasant towards innocent, law-abiding citizens, then how did they treat the inmates? We were about to find out.

As we entered the visitation room, we found that it was no warmer inside the prison than outdoors. Our tour guide, Officer Wong, told us about the prison and the requirements of inmates, such as how inmates ages sixteen and older who didn’t have a high school diploma were required to get their GEDs. Those who did have their diploma or GED could pursue a higher education if they wished. Wong then asked us how it felt, that our tax dollars were going to educating prisoners. We did not particularly mind – everyone has the right to an education, which could be helpful in the reformation process, an opinion voiced by one of my professors. Wong made it clear that he disagreed and continued on with his short lecture.

As we were about to leave the visitation area and enter the prison, Wong asked if we were scared. Based on the general silence and some shrugs, our answer was obviously a resounding “no.” Wong then explained how the corrections officers and visitors alike were lucky to make it out of the prison alive. He told us that the inmates would scream obscenities at us, try to offend us, and even flash us, just to get a reaction. He asked us again: “Are you scared?” Suddenly, it felt as though there was reason to be.

As we toured the facility, many things shocked me – for example, prisoners only earned $0.03/hour the first two years of their imprisonment and $0.05/year every year after, and yet had to pay full-price or slightly discounted prices for everything, even necessities like toothpaste and soap. If their families didn’t provide money for them, then they were, essentially, screwed. But even more shocking was what we encountered upon entering the cellblock: silence. No screaming, no insults, and certainly no flashing. A few smiled and greeted us, asking how we were, but many kept to themselves, reading, writing, or sleeping. The men lived in small cells, perhaps six feet deep, four feet wide and eleven feet tall, with only a small bed, a toilet, a sink, and a small table.

One of my peers later commented that she felt bad that she couldn’t respond to the inmates who greeted us. Wong asked, “Would you still feel bad if you knew one of those guys was a murderer? Or raped a little kid?” Although the answer was clearly supposed to be “no,” I couldn’t help but feel that just because these men had made mistakes, that didn’t mean they didn’t deserve to be treated like human beings. When asked if there were any success stories about inmates who had turned their lives around, Wong said there weren’t any, but that some return after ten years or so and volunteer at Sing Sing. “I don’t trust ‘em though,” Wong commented gruffly.

Throughout the tour, as we walked down the cold, empty halls, I couldn’t help thinking, “These are human beings.” Human beings don’t belong locked up in cages like dogs, with no room to move and no human interaction.  These men may have made terrible, terrible mistakes, but they aren’t animals. They aren’t monsters. They’re human beings, and should be treated as such. Prison is a cold place, void of compassion and empathy.