As I went through security at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining this morning, the guard noticed my accent and asked why I wasn’t watching the royal wedding. The grim correctional facility in upstate New York featured in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, surely was a stark contrast to the feelgood occasion taking place in England, but it showed me how another part of America’s population lived.
Our informed tour guide quashed rumors of the prison closing, saying it was too important for local jobs and would never happen. Although the debate is still swirling in political circles and in the media.
I was at Sing Sing with colleagues from a human rights charity to look at the treatment of prisoners. We were shown the complete lack of privacy the prisoners had in their own cells complete with toilets, as we walked down a housing block and how they had to shower within 10 to 15 minutes in doorless cubicles before the warden turned off the water at the mains. Another housing block for which there is a waiting list, allowed inmates to walk around freely and even keep pets but the warden said it still hadn’t stopped one inmate from knifing another to death a few weeks ago.
One person in the group thought the “prisoners had it pretty good” clashing with others who imagined living in those conditions if they were unfairly imprisoned. An intricate and complex issue no doubt, that cannot be resolved with sweeping generalisations.
Addendum: On 5, May, 2011, The Village Voice revealed that inmates had been neglected during a recent fire at the prison. “They were trapped in their cells for three hours, in the dark, with a lot of smoke,” says attorney Cynthia Conti-Cook, to whom the inmates sent their letters. “The men suffered chest pains, problems breathing, wheezing, asthma attacks, headaches, and at least one who had a seizure.”