William Coffey on the Condition of Convicts

Inside Out; or, an Interior View of the New-York State Prison, printed in New York in 1823, was a political autobiographical account by former lawyer and ex-convict William Coffey, which described the conditions and procedures of Newgate Prison. Despite commercial failure, the book retrospectively offers important historical insight into the corruption that pervaded at the penitentiary through the lens of an outspoken and articulate convict. The book is organized into eleven chapters: building, officers, convicts, internal punishments, crimes, sentences, labor, diet, hospital, pardons, and prison accounts. Each describes the corruption and inefficiency in one aspect of the prison procedure. In this essay, I detail and evaluate Coffey’s analysis of the diet, health, and physical condition of inmates.


Figure 1. Title Page of Inside Out

William Coffey’s 1823 account of Newgate Prison, Inside out; or, An interior view of the New-York State Prison discusses both ineffectuality and corruption in the penitentiary, which impeded and limited the process of moral reformation. His explanations of the inefficiency at Newgate are accompanied by a castigation of the treatment and conditions, which he suggests to be inhumane. He evaluates the physical conditions of Newgate prisoners, first in his account of prison diet, which he claims to be insufficient for convicts tasked with hard labor, and then in his account of the prison hospital at Newgate, which he demonstrates to be poorly run, by an inexperienced and untalented doctor who misdiagnosed both the healthy and ill. Coffey exposes corruption among the inspectors and contractors, who minimized their own expenses at the cost of the prisoners’ welfare. In his argument for the better treatment of convicts he demonstrates a dual-purpose to his writing. Coffey wishes to expose the corruption in both leniency and brutality at Newgate Prison, to argue for a system that is more conducive to an effective reformatory experience. His accounts of prison diets and hospitals demonstrate impediments to the physical conditions of inmates, resulting from the striking self-interest of inspectors, contractors, and keepers, and producing an experience which is neither reformatory nor humane.

Prison Food of the “Coarsest Kind”


Figure 2. Annual Report of the Inspectors at New-York State Prison

Coffey describes the deficits of prison food in terms of quality and quantity, quoting the Annual Report of the Inspectors of the New-York State Prison in its description of prison food as “of the coarsest kind, which costs 6 ¼ cents per day.”[i] According to Coffey, daily rations included three small meals; for breakfast convicts received a single slice of stale rye bread and a pint of cocoa, at noon they received a bowl of soup broth, without vegetables or thickening, a couple of small potatoes, and half a pound of beef neck or heel, and in the evening, they ate mush, or cornmeal pudding, served with molasses.[ii] On Thursdays, they received a portion of boiled pork and some pea or bean soup and on Sundays they received about four ounces of codfish and a couple of potatoes.

Coffey’s description of each item is unflinchingly critical and strongly worded. He complains that the “refuse potatoes” served to convicts were “raised perhaps in the soil of some valuable swamp.”[iii] He similarly bemoans the acidity and “filthy consistence” of the molasses and describes the soup as “unsavory”, “unpalatable”, and “worm-eaten”[iv]. He recalls a period of several days in May 1822, in which a number of convicts grew sick from the consumption of stale bread, whose complaints to the principal keeper, agents, and inspectors were disregarded and largely ignored. Officers were well-fed and blind to the needs of prisoners and yet in Coffey’s speculation, more than half of the convicts lived in a state of perpetual hunger.


Figure 3. Cornmeal mush

These inmates were “men, who work hard, and could eat hearty” and could consume “twice as much as their regular allowances, without being charged with gluttony.”[v}

Corruption and Prison Diets

Yet, Coffey’s revelation extends beyond the conditions of the convicts’ experience to examine the underlying corruption that contributed to their plight. Contractors provided unsuitable products to the prison, accepting payment for healthy and quality food and sending the very opposite. Both the dearth of bread and beef and the condition of said foods, were affronts to both the convict and the State. The convict was in poor physical condition, hungry from a shortage of beef and sickened by the “poisonous” sustenance of moldy bread or cornmeal and the State was cheated by the fraudulent contractors who were overpaid for their goods. Coffey notes the tendency of Inspectors to overlook the faults of the Contractors, with whom they were often friends or relatives. It was the duty of Inspectors to both make contracts for the delivery of food and to evaluate and investigate the quality of food delivered. Yet the Inspectors were deliberately negligent, evidenced by the poor quality of the prison diet, at a detriment to both the convict and the State. The price of daily rations continuously rose from the original cost of 5 and three-fourths cents but the quantity and quality of food remained unchanged.[vi] Coffey declares that “no contractor should (were he even the brother of an Inspector, acting for the Inspector and himself, but in his own name), be allowed to draw, from the Coffers of the State the price agreed to be given for a good ration, when the ration delivered to the convict was poisonously bad.”[vii]

The Tyranny of Keepers

Coffey describes the cruelty of keepers toward hungry convicts who confiscated and consumed excess food possessed by or traded for tobacco among prisoners. Pork, beef, and bread were smuggled into Newgate prison by keepers, contractors, and visitors and exchanged among convicts for set quantities of tobacco. A wealthy convict for instance, might acquire a dozen allowances of pork, which was otherwise served only once a week. Though strictly prohibited, this system of barter kept hungry prisoners better fed, and allowed those with smaller appetites or cravings for tobacco to capitalize on the food they obtained. Prisoners kept purchased food in a bag under the tables of the Refectory where they ate. Yet prison keepers often searched these bags and confiscated excess food found in convicts’ provisions, giving it to the principal keeper as evidence of the crime, or simply devouring it to “prevent its being spoiled.”[viii] Coffer laments the “barbarous” avarice of the Keepers and their cruelty toward a hungry convict, one who had made a fair and equitable trade.

Coffey’s castigation of the Keepers is extensive and accusatory; he describes the keepers as corrupt tyrants who abuse power in malice, and he offers vivid examples of their petty cruelty. Perhaps most striking was his description of an incident in June 1818 when convicts protested the quantity of food. They requested more food and upon the failure of their requests, they refused their labor. Involved prisoners were punished severely for their protests, placed in solitary confinement and chained to the floor on their backs. They were given only bread and water. Twenty convicts died by the ninth or tenth consecutive week of this punishment. The convicts had been accused of “breaking” the prison, rebelling against the keepers and their rules, and the very request for bread became a symbol of disobedience.[ix] Rather than receiving the food they required, they were instead left starving, which Coffey asserts as clear evidence of the corruption of prison keepers and their treatment toward the imprisoned.

Hospitals and Medical Care

Coffey continues an exploration of the physical condition of prisoners, through an exploration of the medical care and hospital at Newgate. Coffer describes the hospital as small and minimalistic, consisting of only four ordinary rooms and just six beds, each made of straw. “Permanent” patients resided here though countless other “Hall” patients were denied beds during necessary care and treatment. Though the Hall patients received the same provisions as any other convict, those with beds were offered a small addition to their meals. It most generally included a pint of tea, sweetened with molasses, though served without milk, and two slices of bread at breakfast. For dinner, patients received a slice of bread, rice and molasses, and ram meat that was “tough enough to challenge the strength of a Behemoth to masticate it.”[x] Coffey describes the additional fare as unfit for the needs of the ill, and unappetizing in general.

The medicine shop was on the basement floor and under the direction of a Convict-Superintendent and his superior, the resident physician, who overlooked all of the medical care at Newgate. Coffey describes the resident physician as a young and inexperienced doctor, unskilled in the diagnosis and treatment of the most common maladies. His general experience resulted in the misdiagnosis of both ill and healthy patients, such that healthy convicts feigned illness to manipulate sympathy and avoid work while sick patients failed to receive the care impertinent to their survival. Coffey argues that a proper doctor should be able to detect a concern by observation, and not require the description of explanation of the allegedly ill. He compares the prison medical care to the gladiator fights of ancient Rome, it was an inhumane experiment at the expense of the imprisoned, for the education of a young “beardless” doctor learning the ways of his trade.


Figure 4. Map of Newgate

Corruption and Medical Care

Yet the failure of this experiment also served a purpose, one which was economic. A reduction in the number of hospital patients spared expenses by the Contractor to furnish food and medicine for the hospital. Coffey suggests outright that an inexperienced but impressionable physician was preferred and chosen each year since they were “ductile, as wax, to his every interested and unfeeling suggestion; and not be…independent in his conduct and humane to every convict.”[xi] Coffey suggests that a docile and young physician would allow for the contractor’s frugality, thus increasing profit from his contracts at the cost of convicts’ lives.


Figure 5. Hospital Records at Newgate

Coffey describes a certain John Gibson, who served as Deputy Keeper at the hospital for over fifteen years prior to the publication year of Inside Out, and whom Coffey commends with respect and sincerity. Though his interactions with Gibson were few, he recalls Gibson’s sympathy towards the sick or dying convicts, and his habit of saving his own food to share with the convicts closest to death. While this stands in sharp contrast to his typical passionate rebuke, its inclusion is perhaps designed to signify the purpose of this writing, to restore a sense of justice to a justice system.

As a judge of characters and conditions in the prison, Coffey makes obvious effort, whether successful or not, to present himself not as an angry ex-convict settling old scores, but as a guileless messenger working to convey the degradation of a structural system and contribute to its improvement. In these chapters, he works to express a specific immorality in the Newgate penitentiary, that of the disregard for human life.


Figure 6. Burial at Potter’s Field

Coffey describes the treatment of dead convicts, based on his observations during his one brief stay at the Newgate hospital. Those bodies which were not used by surgeons for dissections were thrown in a white pine box and thrown in Potter’s Field, without a funeral, eulogy, or even prayer. Coffey proclaims that the food and care of the prisoners was insufficient to sustain them, and the dishonor that marked their lives would shadow them into death. With little hope of survival or liberty, there was little hope of redemption. The corruption and absolute indifference of the keepers, inspectors, and contractors, directly contributed to the poor physical condition of convicts and prevented their chance to lead a better life.

-Brandon Satz-Jacobowitz

[i] Coffey, William, Inside Out, Or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison. (New York: Printed for the author, and sold by J. Costigan, 1823), 157.

[ii] Old-fashioned Cookbook (Charleston, WV: West Virginia Dept. of Agriculture, 1983).22.

[iii] Coffey, Inside Out, 157.

[iv] Ibid., 157.

[v] Ibid., 160.

[vi] Thomas Eddy, An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House in the City of New York (New-York: Printed by Isaac Collins and Son, 1801). 45.

[vii] Coffey, Inside Out, 159.

[viii] Ibid., 163.

[ix] Ibid., 161.

[x] Ibid., 173

[xi] Ibid., 172


Figure 1: Title Page of Inside Out. Digital Image. From: William Coffey. Inside Out, Or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison. New York: Printed for the author, and sold by J. Costigan, 1823.

Figure 2: “Annual Report of the Inspectors at New-York State Prison.” Digital Image. From: William Coffey. Inside Out, Or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison. New York: Printed for the author, and sold by J. Costigan, 1823.

Figure 3: Saxon, Kurt. Cornmeal Mush in Pan. Digital image. Survival Plus. 2012. Accessed November 17, 2016. http://www.survivalplus.com/foods/CORN-AND-BEANS.htm.

Figure 4: Eddy, Thomas. NYC Prison Plan. 1801. Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections, John Jay College, New York. In An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House, in the City of New-York. New York, NY: Printed by Isaac Collins and Son, 1801. 97.

Figure 5: “Accounted Patients.” Digital Image. From: Journal of the Assembly of the state of New-York: at their forty-second session, begun and held at the Capitol, in the city of Albany, the fifth day of January, 1819. Albany: New York State Legislature Assembly, 1819.

Figure 6: Riis, Jacob A. The Potter’s Field Consecrated Ground. 1890. Museum of the CIty of New York, New York.