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CULTURE & ARTS

Museum Slated up the River and Through the Wall at Sing Sing

March 18, 2020

OSSINING, N.Y. — Busting out of Sing Sing has been a dream of inmates since cell doors started clanging shut along the Hudson River in the 1820s. Now there’s a plan to usher visitors inside the high walls well known in the past to gangsters, Hollywood stars and prisoners condemned to the electric chair.

A museum just beyond the maximum-security prison’s watch towers is being planned with a unique feature: a 300-foot-long (91 meters) corridor connecting to the roofless ruins of the original 19th century cell block inside the walls. Museum-goers would stand at the site of the first cramped cells at this prison “up the river” from New York City and learn about life in the Big House.

“It’s so much more than just barbed wire and stone walls,” said Sean Pica, who was released from the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 2002. “For those of us that lived in these prisons to know that time will be captured, the history will be told, is exciting — for the good and for the bad.”

Pica is a board member of the not-for-profit group planning to open the Sing Sing Prison Museum in 2025. Visitors will learn about incarceration in America and about a lockup that looms large culturally.

Infamous inmates who have passed through the gates 30 miles north of New York City include Charles “Lucky” Luciano and “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz. There were 614 people who walked the last mile — 45 feet, actually — to the electric chair here, among them Cold War spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The prison’s forbidding reputation was burnished by Hollywood during its golden age through gangster flicks starring James Cagney and other big stars. This is where Holly Golightly visits Sally Tomato in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and where Robert DeNiro’s character was sent to in “Analyze This.”

The prison’s unusual name is commonly attributed to a Native American phrase for “stone upon stone.”

The idea for a museum here has been kicking around for decades — complicated by the fact that Sing Sing is an active maximum-security prison currently housing about 1,300 inmates. Museums at defunct prisons, like Alcatraz, are common. Rarer are those like the Angola Prison Museum, which is outside the front gate of the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Agreements are being finalized that would allow the private group to begin renovations this summer on the former powerhouse that will house the museum. Organizers plan to turn the building’s locker room into a preview center by the end of this year.

The $45 million plan is not a state project, though New York has supported it with $3.3 million in grants.

While discussions with the state continue, the plan is to open the museum in 2025 with the secure corridor from the powerhouse to the stone shell of the original cell block, according to interim museum executive director Brent D. Glass.

The hollowed-out building used to house cells for 1,200 men on six tiers and runs well longer than a football field.

It was constructed by inmates who were dropped off at the river landing in 1825 and ordered to mine limestone from the hillside for what would become their prison. It was used as housing for about a century while the prison grew up around it. A fire in the 1980s left it roofless.

Glass gave a tour of the ghostly ruin recently, steering clear of concertina wire coiling along the ground. Glass would like a viewing area inside the old cell block. Maybe virtual reality could help visitors imagine life in a 3-by-7-foot cell.

“We want to recreate for them what life was like in prison from the late 1820s to the 1920s,” said Glass, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History.

The prison’s long history mirrors the story of incarceration in America, from harsh treatment in the early years, to the run of executions ending in 1963, to more progressive touches in the 20th century, like morale-boosting celebrity visits.

Babe Ruth swatted a monster home run here during a Yankees exhibition game in 1929. Joan Baez and B.B. King played for inmates on Thanksgiving Day 1972, with the bluesman telling his audience, “I imagine that quite a few of you dudes have the blues already.”

Pica served part of his time in Sing Sing after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 1987. No Pollyanna about prison life, Pica notes that he earned his master’s degree behind bars, setting up his post-incarceration career of helping prisoners earn college degrees.

Pica looks forward to a museum that focuses not only on the electric chair and the wardens, but also the generations of men sent up the river and locked into cells.

“This is an opportunity,” he said, “to look though a lens that you normally would never be able to view through.”

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