Diet at Sing Sing State Prison, 1830-1905

Logistics of Food at Sing Sing

Inmates at Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, NY from 1830-1905 were subjected to a relatively poor diet. To those unaffiliated with the prison, diet was recognized as a necessity to the inmates that should be held to a certain standard. However, to prison officials, maintaining a high standard of diet meant large expenditures and thus it was a priority to minimize these costs whenever possible. Quality and quantity were often sacrificed for cost. Supplying food was the most expensive factor of the prison’s budget, and that particular expenditure was closely monitored. For example, in 1849, the cost of 100 meals was approximately $230.63.[i] In 1850, that figure rose to $251.82, sparking concern from the higher up prison officials.[ii] The cost decreased to $232.42 in 1851, despite there being a larger inmate population.[iii]


The prison and workshops of Sing Sing, c. 1863-1865 (Figure 1)

There were many issues with the implementation of a regimented diet. One difficulty was the rationing, as there were men of all statures and constitutions living at Sing Sing, yet they all ate the same amount for each meal. This posed a nutritional difficulty by hindering doctors from studying the content of the inmates’ diet as opposed to the proportions, as some men were receiving more adequately sized meals than others according to their stature.[iv] Prison officials also did not keep consistent records of the inmates’ weight, which would have been useful in determining the amount of food that each inmate should be given.[v]

Diet at Sing Sing

The diet at Sing Sing during the mid-18th to early 19th centuries was consistent; it featured staples such as potatoes, molasses, beans, rice, pork, beef, beans, and fish.[vi] These items were consistently cited in the Annual Reports of the State Inspectors between 1849 and 1870, and they were referenced by former Sing Sing inmates James Brice, Number 1500, and W.A. Coffey. Prisoners received very few fruits or vegetables – the only types of produce mentioned (very infrequently) in the expenditures section of the Annual Reports came in 1857-1858, when it was stated that apples, cabbage and turnips were purchased.[vii] In April of 1870, it was recorded that $12.90 were spent on “vegetables, etc”.[viii] It was rare for fresh foods to be served to inmates, as there were limited technologies available for the preservation of fresh food and they were generally more expensive. It was reported by the Warden in 1849 that no fresh meat was allowed to be served to the inmates. He described the diet of the inmates, stating, “We gave our men the best salt mess pork and beef, with potatoes and brown bread, occasionally changing to pork and beans, or codfish and potatoes. No fresh meats were allowed.”[ix]


Dining Room of Sing Sing State Prison (Figure 2)

Inmate Descriptions of Food

While prison officials consistently defended the quality of the rations provided to inmates, first-person accounts given by former convicts during their stays in Sing Sing suggest otherwise. In 1823, W.A. Coffey published a particularly scathing review of his daily meals at a preceding New York state prison to Sing Sing, Newgate. It is likely that his experience at Newgate was very similar to an inmate’s experience at Sing Sing during this time period. Coffey stated:  

“In the morning, (after fasting perhaps thirteen or fourteen hours,) he must see him regaling himself with a luxurious slice of his daily manchet of (nearly black) rye bread, and with about a pint of Cocoa sweetened with molasses. At noon, sitting himself down to a dish of unsavory and unpalatable Soup, without vegetables or thickening; to about a half pound of beef from the neck or heels of some lean and antiquated bullock, and to a couple of refuse potatoes, about the size of a hen’s egg, raised perhaps in the soil of some valuable swamp, from the delicacy of the odour, they, invariably, possess. In the evening, when his daily labour is over, refreshing himself with a trencher or plate of Mush or Supan (made, frequently, from Indian meal, in which the corn stalks, have, economically been ground,) with half a gill of molasses, most generally acidulated, and, very often, of the most filthy consistence. On Thursday, in every week, to a slice of boiled pork, (the best article that is furnished to the Convicts,) and some (worm eaten) pea or bean soup; and on Sunday, (or Monday,) to about four ounces of codfish, and a couple of potatoes […] I have seen Bread and Beef served out to the Convicts, that could only be concocted, naturally, by the iron-digesting stomach of the Ostrich; and Pork and Fish, whose very smell would make the stomach wamble with nausea.”[x]

Other accounts made by inmates confirm this narrative. James Brice wrote in 1839 that inmates were often served “cold mush, which [was] not fit to eat at any time” by keepers instead of actual meals.[xi] In 1904, Inmate Number 1500 wrote that the preparation of the food was “generally abominable” and thus made it unappetizing.[xii] However, he also noted that because the inmates were famished, the meals were “not uninviting to a hungry man.”[xiii] He described the dining habits of his fellow inmates, stating, “My companions ate rapidly and with little regard to the demands of table etiquette. They simply shoveled their food, and most of them grumbled in low tones to their neighbor about its quality.”[xiv] According to 1500, the meal most hated by the prisoners came on Sundays. After attending their religious service, the inmates were given a meager amount of rice or stewed prunes, coffee, and bread. These were the only rations they received all day.[xv] He quoted a fellow prisoner who had been released to describe the contempt for Sunday’s meal: “Rather than go back to those awful Sundays, I would take my own life.”[xvi]


Table showing the average number of hours spent laboring and eating for each month in 1848 (Figure 3)


Starvation was an issue during the 19th century at Sing Sing. Though it was never addressed in the Annual Reports, numerous inmate accounts recall experiencing extreme famine. According to James Brice, whether or not an inmate was adequately fed was often at the will of the keeper of the kitchen or other prison officials. Describing one of the prison Inspectors, Robert Wiltsie, during his sentence, Brice wrote, “It would be tedious for me to enumerate the many times I have seen this man drive the poor hungry, starving prisoners and fellow mortals from the kitchen, when they had been sent there by their keepers to obtain a cold potato.”[xvii] He also noted that other prison officials were more benevolent. The keeper of the kitchen upon Brice’s arrival, John Mattocks, was more sensitive to the inmates’ hunger, and according to Brice, “during the time he was keeper of the kitchen I never suffered hunger, but had always plenty to eat.”[xviii] Mattocks’ replacement after his resignation, Daniel D. Tompkins, was less kind. He denied Brice food to the point of starvation: “I was so starved about the 29th of August, that I took hold of the clay that blacksmiths use in welding iron, to eat.”[xix]


19th century illustration of starvation (Figure 4)

The account of W.A. Coffey corroborates Brice’s description of famine. Coffey noted that the prison officials themselves had plenty to eat, but that they did little to “heed the murmur of the famished Convict, upon whom an unfeeling Contractor has imposed his poisonous provisions, and thus speculated, emphatically, upon the very life-blood of his heart.”[xx] He wrote that more than half the inmates at Sing Sing could easily eat twice as much food as they were served without being considered “chargeable with gluttony.”[xxi] Coffey also noted that those inmates who complained of hunger were harshly punished, and thus all men abstained from voicing their struggle: “Such men are in a continually, consuming state of starvation, without being suffered, more than barely to murmur, and never to complain, without an immediate reprimand, or a menace of punishment.”[xxii] James Brice perhaps best summarized the hunger felt by the inmates of Sing Sing during the 19th century when he wrote of how hastily he ate two containers (kids) of nearly inedible food: “Now, reader, what do you think, from what has been related, must have been the situation of the men in that prison as to the starvation, when I solemnly declare to you, that I could easily eat what the two kids contained?”[xxiii]

– Abby Wheat

[i] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Second Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 4, 201-211. Vol. 2. NY, 1850, 4.

[ii] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Third Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 6, 232-40. Vol. 3. NY, 1851, 6.

[iii] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Fourth Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 3, 226-32. Vol. 4. NY, 1852, 3.

[iv] Stanton, John G. A Report on Food and Diet, with Observations on the Dietetical Regimen, Suited for Almshouses, Prisons, and Hospitals; Also on Heating, Ventilation, &c., with Practical Recommendations. New York, NY: W.C. Bryant, 1852, 25-26.

[v] Stanton, Report on Food and Diet, 27.

[vi] Belcher, Second Annual, 174.

[vii]  Butler, Henry L. “Appendix.” In Eleventh Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons, 50-74. Vol. 11. Albany, NY, 1859.

[viii] McRussell, E. “Agent and Warden’s Report.” In Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons, 29-57. Vol. 23. Albany, NY: Argus Company Printers, 1871, 40.

[ix] Belcher, W.N. “Physician’s Report.” In Second Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 4, 201-211. Vol. 2. NY, 1850, 249.

[x] Coffey, W. A. “Diet.” In Inside Out; Or, an Interior View of the New York State Prison, 156-64. New York, New York, 1823, 157-158.

[xi] Brice, James. Secrets of the Mount-Pleasant State Prison, Revealed and Exposed [electronic Resource] : An Account of the Unjust Proceedings against James R. Brice, Esq., by Which He Was Convicted of the Crime of Perjury : Accompanied by Affidavits to Prove His Innocency : Also an Account of the Inhuman Treatment of Prisoners by Some of the Keepers : And an Authentic Statement of the Officers and Salaries with Other Curious Matters before Unknown to the Public. Albany, NY: Printed for the Author, 1839, 47.

[xii] Number 1500. “Diet and Discipline.” In Life in Sing Sing, 24-44. Indianapolis, IN: Bobs-Merrill Company, 1904, 30.

[xiii] Number 1500, Life in Sing Sing, 26.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] Number 1500, Life in Sing Sing, 28.

[xvi] Number 1500, Life in Sing Sing, 29.

[xvii] Brice, Secrets of Mount-Pleasant, 38.

[xviii] Brice, Secrets of Mount-Pleasant, 45.

[xix] Brice, Secrets of Mount-Pleasant, 46.

[xx] Coffey, Inside Out, 158.

[xxi] Coffey, Inside Out, 160.

[xxii] ibid.

[xxiii] Brice, Secrets of Mount-Pleasant, 57.


Figure 1: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Prison and workshops, looking south.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Figure 2: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Dining Room, Sing Sing Prison, N.Y.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Figure 3: Smith, Chauncey. Average Number of Hours of Labor for Each Day during the Year, Nine and Five-sixths of a Minute. 1849. Albany. In Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons. Vol. 1. Albany, 1848. 163.

Figure 4:  Fäderneslandet. Illustration of Starvation in Northern Sweden. 1867. In Ett Satans år. Stockholm: Svierges Radio, 1867.