Songs From The Yard: Sing Sing’s Lost Poet

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During the spring of 1825 a handful of prisoners were landed on the shore of the Hudson River at Mt. Pleasant to begin construction of a new penitentiary. For six months they toiled under the wary eyes and ready muskets of their keepers, sleeping in tents and lean-tos. On November 26, the first convicts were safely locked up in the cells of what was to become known as Sing Sing prison.

Until the first prison reforms of the 1870’s, the convicts at the Mt. Pleasant State Penitentiary existed in a state of virtual slavery, living at the mercy of their keepers and guards. Civil rights being what they were in that era, the prisoners did not complain much of their lot, and firsthand accounts of nineteenth-century prison life are rare. Thus, it is particularly arresting to come across a document that tells not only about life on the inside, but does so in verse—the manuscript of John T. Connors.

A petty felon, John Connors lived by the pen. He was, by his own admission in the manuscript, a “scratcher”—a passer of bad checks. He served a ten-year sentence from 1878 to 1888, during which time he penned over a hundred poems, songs, and prison anecdotes.

One of the poems Connors wrote was the delicate review of jailhouse cuisine that appears on page 20. Connors and the other prisoners received three meals a day: just before dawn they ate a breakfast of coffee and the hash Connors describes, at midday they were treated to a dinner either of stew or meat and vegetables, and on returning to their cells in the evening they got bread and coffee. The coffee, called “bootleg” by the prisoners, was a vile decoction brewed from fifteen pounds of coffee and a couple of barrels of burnt bread crumbs for every three hundred gallons of water.

 

From the completion of the prison complex until well into the twentieth century the prisoners toiled under what was called the “contract system.” Local businessmen would contract with the warden for convict labor; the daily work load was limited only by the hours of daylight. Everyone but the convicts profited handsomely from this arrangement. It was not until 1886 that the prisoners finally received some compensation for their labor; even then the amount was limited to 10 per cent of their earnings, and Connors had much to say about “bloated capitalists.”

Many of Connors’ poems are either paeans to a mother’s devotion or complaints about a lover’s fickleness. He sings praises of Ireland and celebrates the fistic glory of John L. Sullivan. But by far the most interesting verses are those which tell, with harsh humor and fatalistic vigor, of the brutal routines of prison life a century ago.