Sing Sing Penitentiary in Ossining New York was a hotbed of disease during the mid-19th century. There were a number of factors that contributed to this, perhaps the most influential being the general density of its population. The prison was full of inmates who resided in small spaces. If one prisoner became sick, it was likely that all he came into contact with were also ill or contagious. The general lack of nutrition weakened prisoners’ immune systems and made them more susceptible to disease. Sanitation was not properly maintained, creating an atmosphere of germs and impurities that prisoners inhaled every day. Though these factors were recognized by penitentiary administrators, there was little done to make amends. Additionally, the hospital provided to treat sick inmates at Sing Sing was underfunded and poorly managed, preventing the sick from healing. The hospital could be referred to as more of an environment of death than an environment of healing during this time period.
The hospital at Sing Sing State Prison from 1830 to 1905 was not an adequate health center to heal the inmates of their various illnesses. Hospital expenses only made up for a small percentage of overall prison expenditures. In 1849, Sing Sing spent $58,261.39 on hospital expenses, which made up only 2.4% of the prison’s total expenditures for that year.[i] A decade later in 1859, the hospital’s expenditures were more than halved; hospital expenses totaled $24,561.82, constituting only 0.7% of all prison expenditures.[ii] Furthermore, those expenses were not typically put towards medicine for the inmates, but rather for the food provided to inmates who resided in the hospital – foods such as fresh meat, crackers, and milk, which inmates who were not sick did not receive.[iii] In the Annual Report of the State Inspectors of 1848, it was recorded that medicine was only purchased twice – $2,917.96 in May and $5,403.44 in June. This is likely due to the cholera outbreak that took place in the summer of 1848.[iv] Additionally, there is little specificity as to what medicines were actually administered to the patients – both entries into the annual report only state that “medicine” was purchased – which could perhaps be an indicator of cruelty in the hospital (which will be addressed later).
In addition to the extremely low budget used to sustain the hospital, inmate accounts of Sing Sing have claimed that the physicians who ran the hospital were often under-qualified. The Resident Physician was appointed annually by the State Inspectors, which meant that physicians were often chosen based on political favor rather than medical competence.[v] In his 1823 account of his time of incarceration in the New York State Prison system, W.A. Coffey stated that “The Resident Physician is generally, an ignorant inexperienced boy, of an age when the prospect of manhood, is productive of a puppyistical self-sufficiency, as disgusting as it is idle, to those of riper years.”[vi]
One particular complaint that Coffey voiced was the physicians’ general inability to tell which inmates were truly sick and which inmates were healthy and only sought medicine in order to avoid work. According to Coffey, often the resident physician would admit perfectly healthy convicts into the hospital and refuse entry to inmates who were actually sick.[vii] He described the suffering of inmates because of the physician’s incapabilities:
“…but better would it be […] that the doors of the prison Hospital, should ever be barred; as I have frequently known them to be, against one poor, and miserable, and sick man; from either the pitiable ignorance of a Resident Physician, or his practised brutality, by the directions of a Keeper. If there were no other requisite, should it not, think you, reader, be necessary, that a Resident Physician, should be able to distinguish, between sickness and health – to tell whether a convict, complaining of illness, were actually ill or not? Is there an extravagance in the making of such a qualification necessary?”[viii]
In his 1839 account of his stay at Sing Sing, former inmate James Brice described one former keeper of the hospital, Horatio Lawrence. According to Brice, Lawrence was entirely unfit to care for ill inmates:
“He was an unfit person to have charge of the sick and the dying in the hospital. His acts of cruelty to the sick and applicants for medicine were almost innumerable. I have heard and seen him order men out of the hospital when applying for medicine, under the penalty of being caned and flogged in case of disobedience.”[ix]
There were few nurses in the hospital, and the nurse positions were filled by inmates – inmates who were subject to the same sanitary conditions as the rest of the prisoners, thus exposing them to disease and infection.[x]
The hospital at Sing Sing was also heavily influenced by corruption. A prominent example of this was the contractor supplying the hospital supplies’ influence over the resident physician. The contractor was paid a flat sum regardless of how many supplies were necessary to meet the hospital’s needs. When the hospital was not housing a large number of patients, less supplies were needed, making it advantageous to the contractor to limit the number of patients. Thus, the contractor supplying the hospital would be in favor of a resident physician more amenable to his requests. Coffey described this dilemma, stating, “It is important to [the Contractor], that the Resident Physician, should be ductile, as wax, to his every interested and unfeeling suggestion.”[xi]
The Convict-Superintendent of Sing Sing was in charge of the apothecary (while under the supervision of the Resident Physician), where the various treatments given to ill prisoners were made. However, the Convict-Superintendent was not necessarily an expert in medical treatments. This, in addition to unqualified physicians, resulted in overall poor medical care given to inmates. Coffey references the “rapacity” of the Superintendent, claiming that the Superintendent was both cruel to the dying inmates (often taking the inmates’ requested final “delicacy” meal for himself) and careless with his administration of medicine.[xii]
In the case of a misadministration of medicine, it was unlikely that the Superintendent would be punished by his superiors. Coffey described the lack of reprimand: “The Superintendent, acting under the watchful eye of the Resident Physician, excused himself by saying, that ‘he had mistaken the medicine.’ He was told to be more careful, and the matter ended. The ignorant Superintendent was not even displaced.”[xiii]
Coffey painted a bleak picture of an inmate’s chance of healing in the hospital because of the corruption in its management.
“Between the avarice of the Contractor, and the rapacity of the Superintendent, the poor languishing convict has but a poor chance, of being treated with humanity. When once he is stretched upon a low bed of sickness, a state of convalescence is a perfect wonder, and a relapse is certain, if not instantaneous death.”[xiv]
This description claims the hospital of Sing Sing State Prison was a death sentence rather than a chance at life to those inmates who were ailing.
Inmate accounts of the hospital at Sing Sing illustrate the cruelty convicts were treated with while in or seeking the hospital’s care. As mentioned earlier, James Brice wrote in 1839 about a cruel hospital keeper, Horatio Lawrence, who caned or flogged men who sought treatment and were deemed to be well enough to work.[xv] In his 1833 account of his stay at Sing Sing, Col. Levi S. Burr wrote similarly of hospital procedures, stating, “if not very sick, [the prisoners] are sent back to their employment, and sometimes with a flogging, for reporting themselves sick, when the Doctor says they are not.”[xvi]
Coffey described medical experimentation being done on sick convicts, claiming that the Superintendent would give inmates medicines not yet proven to cure illness in order to view its effects on a sick person. Often, the medicine would produce an undesirable and painful effect on the inmate – it could even go so far as to kill the inmate. Coffey described the injustice of this situation:
“What wonder that a poor convict, writhing in the agonies of death, from the effects of a maddening poison administered unto him, by the way of experiment – with the demons of inhumanity, holding their vigils at his bed posts, and upbraiding the tardy flight of his soul to eternity – with the icy fingers of death, sending the life blood of his heart, and every thing, but sympathy, accompanying his torments – what wonder, I say, is it, that a convict in such a situation, and at such a moment, should lisp a curse on those who barbarously poisoned him, and should carry such a curse, deep engraves upon his soul, for the confirmation of him, who had given it a being? What wonder that Prussic Acid and Digitalis Purpurea, are known in the prison, as the watch-words of death? […] Is murder to be legalized, by the destitution of a convict?”[xvii]
Coffey’s quote suggests that inmates associated medicines administered by the Superintendent as a death sentence. This could mean that many of the deaths at Sing Sing were actually murders by the hands of prison officials. Cruelty in the name of medical experimentation continued even after an inmate’s death; if an inmate died in the winter, his body was given to local surgeons, where it was “to be cut and carved and mutilated at pleasure.”[xviii]
One particular act of cruelty that took place in the hospital that inmates experienced was having solitude forced upon them while on their deathbeds. The only visitors that dying men were allowed were ministers and other religious figures – other than that, no other inmates or even the dying inmate’s family were allowed to see him. Burr described the lack of closure that dying inmates experienced: “They dare not forbid the attentions of the minister to the sick man’s bed, but no other friend or brother can approach the dying couch to hear his last word of remembrance to his wife, his family or friends.”[xix] In his 1904 account of Sing Sing, Inmate 1500 related a similar narrative of an inmate’s death in solitude: “As his hour comes near the nurse draws around his cot a screen and the business of the ward goes on around it, only interrupted now and again by an inquiry from one bed to another if ‘that bloke hasn’t croaked yet.'”[xx]
The hospital at Sing Sing State Prison from 1830-1904 was more of a death sentence than a chance at health for its patients. This was due to physicians and caretakers who lacked medical knowledge and experience, corruption within the hospital framework and administration, and cruelty resulting from unfit caretakers and corruption. The hospital received very little funding compared to the rest of the prison, and this shows that the health care administered to inmates was not a top priority of prison officials. Overall, the hospital was so ineffective and unnecessarily cruel that inmates feared dying there; W.A. Coffey eloquently articulated this feeling:
“The idea of death, at any time, has an imposing terror upon the mind. But situated as a Convict is, in the Hospital of this prison – with nothing but selfishness, and apathy, and inhumanity around him; with no friend to pillow his head, drooping beneath the anguish of disease; with no soothing voice of affection, to whisper consolation to him; with nothing to console, and every thing to grieve him; destitute of proper attention; made the play thing of a novice, to speculate upon at pleasure; denied the needed nutriment, to produce a convalescence; away from perhaps his dear wife, and much loved little children; his father and his mother, denied the liberty of seeing him; and the remembrance of his imprudence, or his wickedness, hourly chafing his woes – to a Convict in such a situation, and at such a time, how much more dreadful is the agony, which that terror creates!”[xxi]
– Abby Wheat
[i] Booth, Alfred R. “Report of the Agent of Sing Sing Prison.” In Second Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 155-173. Vol. 2. NY, 1850, 159.
[ii] Beardsley, William. “Appendix.” In Twelfth Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 17-29. Vol. 12. NY, 1860, 27.
[iii] Smith, Chauncey. “Expenditures, May.” In First Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 203-205. Vol. 1. NY, 1849, 204.
[iv] Smith, Chauncey. “Expenditures, June.” In First Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 207-209. Vol. 1. NY, 1849, 207.
[v] Coffey, W. A. “Hospital.” In Inside Out; Or, an Interior View of the New York State Prison, 165-180. New York, New York, 1823, 165.
[vi] Coffey, Inside Out, 166.
[viii] Coffey, Inside Out, 169.
[ix] 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, 45.
[x] Butler, Henry L. “Clerk’s Report.” In Thirteenth Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons of the State of New York, 73-76. Vol. 13. NY, 1861, 74.
[xi] Coffey, Inside Out, 172.
[xii] Coffey, Inside Out, 173.
[xiii] Coffey, Inside Out, 174.
[xiv] Coffey, Inside Out, 173.
[xv] Brice, Secrets of Mount-Pleasant, 45.
[xvi] Burr, Levi S. “The Hospital Department.” In A Voice from Sing-Sing, Giving a General Description of the State Prison. A Short and Comprehensive Ecological History of the Quality of the Stone of the Quarries; and a Synopsis of the Horrid Treatment of the Convicts in That Prison., 38-47. Albany, NY, 1833, 38.
[xvii] Coffey, Inside Out, 171.
[xviii] Coffey, Inside Out, 175.
[xix] Burr, A Voice from Sing Sing, 45.
[xx] Number 1500. “Incidents in Convict Life.” In Life in Sing Sing, 123-135. Indianapolis, IN: Bobs-Merrill Company, 1904, 133.
[xxi] Coffey, Inside Out, 175.
Figure 1: Unknown. The Hospital. Sing Sing Prison. 1863-1865. Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views., New York Public Library, New York. In Wikimedia Commons. April 21, 2010. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hospital._Sing_Sing_Prison,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views.jpg.
Figure 2: Coffey, W.A. Excerpt from Inside Out. 1823. In Inside Out; Or, an Interior View of the New York State Prison. New York, New York: J. Costigan, 1823. 169.
Figure 3: Unknown. “Interior of Male Hospital at Sing Sing Prison, New York.” Digital image. OpenI. https://openi.nlm.nih.gov/detailedresult.php?img=HMD101436268_A013034&req=4.
Figure 4: Belcher, W.N. Of the Several Convicts Deceased in the Male Prison at Sing Sing, during the Year Ending in September 30th, 1848. 1849. Albany. In Annual Report of the Inspectors of the State Prisons. Vol. 1. Albany. 248.