skip to Main Content

Fifty Years in Sing Sing:
A Personal Account, 1879-1929

By Alfred Conyes
Albany, NY\: Excelsior Editions (SUNY Press). 2015.

Readers of this journal may share my interest in the experiences of those confined in jail and in prisoner of war camps and believe that a truly comprehensive understanding of criminology requires a great understanding of detention from the perspective of those who are, or have been, confined. The most recent publication of this 173 page book adds a great deal to our understanding of the deleterious (but all too common) consequences of imprisonment from the viewpoint of a prison guard, based on his lifetime of experience from 1879-1929.

In 1930, a Mr. Alfred Van Buren transcribed a memoir for a family member written by Mr. Conyes, based on his experiences as a prison guard and keeper for a half-century in Sing Sing Prison, in New York State. The original memoir had been kept safely, but not read, until Conyes’ great-granddaughter, Ms. Penelope Kay Jarrett, came across it by chance, and set out to edit and publish this still-invaluable account of prison life (and death) in a memoir from so long ago. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of the experience of imprisonment penned by an insider.

Fifty Years in Sing Sing…, is divided into eleven chapters following a valuable introduction laying the groundwork for the insightful account of changes to the attitude about punishment during the later 1800 and early 1900s and its impact on prison life and also explains firsthand the nature of the work of prison guards. The Prelude begins with Conyes’ powerful words, that “[f]ifty years behind prison walls as a guard and keeper is an experience which few would choose and still less endure … [He had] seen many changes in prison administration and discipline … [and it was clear to him] that [the] modern methods [we]re far more effective than those used in the era of striped suits, ball and chain, lock-step, and physical torture” (page xxiii).

The author also observed that the people of his day wondered why “convicts [we]re not simply locked up in their cells … all the time.” Noting that prisoners must one day be returned to society as the main reason why this was not done. Conyes himself had come to see prisons as more than places for punishment, but as places of correction and training. In fact, from his observations at Sing Sing over 50 years, and quite opposed to the “general belief of the day that punishment [can…] reform the criminal, … protect society, and … deter others”, Conyes concluded that brute force … never reformed any man and the punishment-oriented treatment of prisoners of his day was ineffective and seemed to have more to do with getting even.

Recalling his early years when guards had to be “stern and at times cruel” and that “[b]ack then the main purpose of punishment was to break the men physically and mentally (10-11), Conyes felt rather that “encourage[ing] inmates in the better things of life [… is what makes them…] more apt to form better ideals and endeavour to lead an honest, wholesome life after their dismissal from the institution. Conyes felt the “task is not easy, but neither is it hopeless” (Page xxv).

The first chapters also explain hiring practices of would-be guards, notably the reform of civil service hiring practices. Conyes then explains his development as a guard, and the gradual transformation of his perspective on the nature of discipline, especially as having had to involve himself directly with certain practices he found ghastly. However, by the time of his writing in 1930, “[t]he conditions which formerly created in prisoners the feeling of being entombed, useless, and hopeless exiles ha[d] been removed…” (21).

In the subsequent chapters, a good deal of attention is drawn to the new perspectives touching upon the nature of the work the inmates performed, their opportunities for recreation especially the improvement of library facilities, religious and moral counselling, and the work of the Mutual Welfare League in assisting offenders to adopt pro-social attitudes. Certain anecdotes in this book are humorous as in the case of the prisoner who forged the signature of the President in order to grant himself a pardon (page 35). Others are tragic. Included under this rubric are many accounts of executions, including the detailed recitation of the first female to have been electrocuted (65 – 91). Conyes’ perspective demonstrates a prison life fraught with despair and uncertainty and fully discusses the psychological dichotomy of jailor and jailed.

The author also discusses the subject of escapes quite ably, and the thorny question of the imprisonment and, at times, execution of the wrongfully convicted. Some of Conyes’ insights in this respect are quite illuminating, and ought to be pursued by scholars interested in this topic. For example, we read at pages 96 to 107 of Carlyle Harris who refused to escape from Death Row during a successful break out, lest it seem he was thereby indirectly admitting that he was a criminal. Later on, in the execution chamber, he renewed his claim to innocence, although he had no hope of being reprieved, a situation Conyes had observed on other occasions.

I note as well the single account of self-defence put forward by a female prisoner (110) and how her plea was rejected by the courts, leading to the imposition of a sentence of capital punishment. This type of controversy is discussed fully and fairly in the Canadian context by Professor Elizabeth A. Sheehy in her text, Defending Battered Women on Trial Lessons from the Transcripts, UBC Press: Vancouver, 2014.

In closing, I commend in particular pages 137 to 149 on the subject “Do Good and Make Good”, and the efforts of a Mutual Welfare League to elevate the hopes and rehabilitative potential of all prisoners. The author makes plain by means of many examples how humane treatment, appropriate education, and guidance are essential to the ultimate protection of society. Fifty Years in Sing Sing: A Personal Account, 1879-1929 provides a valuable first hand study of imprisonment during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and offers insights only available from those charged with guarding inmates. The reader will profit immensely from this vivid account of life within one of America’s most famous jails and lessons on pro-active treatment of prisoners that continue to be touted by many researchers today.

Gilles Renaud
Ontario Court of Justice
April 9, 2015

Back To Top