Chapter III: A Prison Riot
I had been there about five months when it happened. A prisoner took off. The last anyone saw him, he was running like hell over a small hill in the direction of the train depot. Immediately the siren went off. It could be heard for four or five miles in any direction. The siren was to alert farmers or others in the surrounding area that a prisoner was on the loose. All prisoners were knocked off work and marched back to the recreation hall on the double. This allowed a greater number of guards to hop into their cars and give chase. It was in the middle of summer and stifling hot. Naturally, everyone hoped that the prisoner would make it. (In fact, he did make it--for three months, then he was caught.) We were confined to the recreation hall for the rest of the day. We lined up for lunch, came out, and were ushered back to the hall just to sit. It was boring and tedious.
The mobs had their own particular sections to sit in, and in the Italian section, a few of the guys got a little belligerent during a game. The guard on duty (nicknamed Flossie because he was so neat in his attire and poised in his demeanor that he appeared effeminate) walked down the aisle, pointed his club at a couple of rowdies and told them to calm down. Slowly he walked back to his high seat and sat down. A few minutes later he got up from his chair and moved rapidly toward the Italian section. Everybody watched him. He walked right up to the two guys who were arguing and climbed upon a bench. He stood, legs apart, between them. Raising his club, he shouted, "You dago sonofabitches better shut up. This is the last time I'm warning you. Goddamn ginny bastards." Then he walked back to his chair. Almost everyone had heard him.
Complete silence overtook the hall. Several hundred boys sat there motionless, all watching the Italian section. There was some kind of action brewing there, but we could only hear muffled voices. Heads were shifting; it looked like orders were going out to all wing commanders. Minutes turned into hours. Finally came the command to prepare for dinner. It consisted of small pieces of lamb in gravy with mashed potatoes. The routine serving of prunes filled separate bowls. The bread plates were stacked high, as usual. I had no idea what, if anything, would happen. As I moved my plate toward my body, I felt a jarring of the table. The prunes in the bowl started to shake. A crash at the other end of the mess hall made me look up just in time to see a table standing on end and everything rolling off it. Tables were being upturned on both sides of the mess hall. My table rose up and food came sliding off. In the next instant, guards were beating guys to the floor with their clubs. From the far end, where most of the Italian leaders were sitting, came screaming and yelling. The guards were most active there, since that's where the riot started. A guard was hit in the face with an aluminum plate. His nose started to bleed and he fell to his knees, shouting for help. Some guards ran to his aid, and without determining the ones responsible, launched into all the boys with their clubs, hitting anyone within a few feet of the injured guard.
In my section, the guard stood where he was, shouting, "Up against the wall with your hands up."
Guards on their way out the main gate, heading home, heard the commotion and came running back. The siren went off, calling back any guards who had left the premises. The beatings increased in intensity. The guards, especially those at the other end of the hall where the rioting had started, were bringing their clubs down on head after head. Boys with their hands raised in surrender were clubbed into unconsciousness. The guards near our section were chafing to let themselves go as well. I'm sure that only the appearance of the deputy warden, a big Irishman named Sullivan, saved us from having our heads bashed in. Taking in the situation with one glance, Sullivan shouted to the guard nearest me, "Get these guys out to the yard so we can isolate the rest."
Another guard standing close by started to panic. He pulled out his revolver. Sullivan shouted, "Put that away before someone takes it off you!" The guard sheepishly reholstered his gun.
We were led off to the yard with our hands over our heads and made to stand in line within earshot of the bedlam inside. Guys came out of the mess hall in small groups to join the quickly-established single-file lines. Within fifteen minutes, all those able to walk out had been assembled and stood facing one direction with their hands over their heads.
The hospital staff came through the gate with stretchers and first aid equipment and went into the mess hall. Another orgy of beatings was started by the guards. No longer was it confined to a few of the Italian mob. It spread to guys in every group with which the guards had ever had any trouble. Up and down the line they walked, looking at every face. As soon as a guard decided that someone was to be lumped, he struck him across the face with his hand, then beat him across the head and back with his club. Any other guard close by might join the clubbing. Sometimes three guards clubbed one inmate. As soon as the guy was on the ground and showed signs of unconsciousness, they would leave him and continue up and down the line, looking for other victims.
The guard who had belted me over the head a few months earlier walked past me three times, looking me directly in the eye. I felt sure that he was debating whether to pull me out of the line and beat me into unconsciousness. Instead he yanked guys out all around me. Already some 35 inmates lay unconscious. When the orgy died down and the guards were satisfied they had singled out all the ringleaders and anyone else with influence, they went into a conference. As they discussed the situation, the stretcher bearers raced through the gate, transporting the victims to the hospital. At first they were simply bandaging the injured. Now they worried about getting the fallen away from the guards.
For the next two hours, we remained in the same position, hands over our heads. In the interim, the siren blared the all clear wail to anyone on the outside who might have been interested. Cell blocks were called, and away we marched to be locked up for the night. From my cell position, I was able to see the top floor of the administration building in the distance. The hospital was located there. All the lights were on. Every bed was occupied and cots were placed three deep to accommodate the injured. A doctor from town was called in to help. Of the inmates, three had suffered skull fractures and 35 required stitches in their heads. And the casualty list went on and on. It was a miracle of sorts that people could be beaten so savagely without anyone getting killed. It was not because the guards didn't try. Their eyes had been bulging out of their heads, either in ecstasy or terror, as they swung their clubs down on the heads and backs of the inmates.
Early the next morning, as the cell doors were opened for men to wash up, word got around: "No outgoing letters to be dropped in the box by anyone. Letters will be handed to the tier block trustee for depositing." This measure was being taken in case anyone was trying to communicate with outside authorities. No one had mentioned what the next event would be in this drama. Once in the mess hall, we didn't have to wait long to find out. Apart from sounds of shuffling feet and scraping benches, no other sound could be heard. The guys who had gone in earlier sat mute and motionless at the tables. Their hands were in their laps. I took my place at the table and did the same. We sat at the table for 30 minutes, staring at the food, our stomachs growling. Nobody touched a crumb--a great achievement since no advance notice had been given about the hunger strike.
When the guards were finally convinced that no one was going to eat, they marched us out into the yard, then into the recreation hall, where we sat until noon. No one was allowed to work. We were herded into the mess hall again, where the morning's scene was repeated. We sat mute and motionless. The sounds of growling stomachs grew like a brewing thunderstorm, but no one touched a thing. Ironically, that noon menu was extra special, something which had never happened before. Each plate held two of the most beautiful pork chops imaginable, with applesauce on the side and an orange next to the plate. It was a treat for hungry eyes. The enticement did not work; nobody finked.What strength the guys showed!
Out we went to the recreation hall again. I wondered how long this could go on. About mid-afternoon, two numbers were called out. The numbers belonged to the leading characters of the Italian and Irish mobs. They left the hall under an escort and headed for the warden's office. Later I learned what took place in the warden's office. Present at the session were the warden, the deputy warden, the chief of the guards, Minelli the Shiv and Choir Boy Donohue. The warden began by saying that he wanted to end the mess and get the institution back in order. Minelli, sitting nervously facing the warden, quickly started to speak. "My people was insulted. My people was called wops and dagos and bastards by your guards. We may be your prisoners, Mr. Warden, but we don't have to take that kind of talk. No, sir."
"Yeah," Donohue said. "Something has to be done with that guard called Flossie. Last week he insulted one of my fellows by saying the Irish are lower than pigs, and we ain't forgot that."
The chief guard spoke up and accused both Minelli and Donohue of lying and of being the fomentors of the riot. He ended up by telling them they better shape up or there would be another 75 men sent to the hospital. Donohue replied that if they wanted to send 75 more men to the hospital, that was one thing, but nobody had the right to insult a person's religious or native background, or their parents by calling the inmates bastards. Minelli repeated what Donohue said, then added that the inmates were also mad because the food was not good. Something should be done about the food, he said. The chief guard again berated the two spokesmen and accused them of deliberately planning to injure guards. He pointed out that, as a result of the riot, one of the guards received a broken nose and a split lip when he was hit in the face with a metal dish, and two guards were under doctors' care for shattered nerves. The guards were not about to forget this riot, and the inmates better toe the mark--or else.
The scowls on the faces of Minelli and Donohue were quiet evidence that warned the warden that at this stage nothing would be solved by this meeting. The only result would be a strengthening of the inmate's adamant positions. The warden told the chief guard to calm down. "All right," he said. "Let's say that some mistakes were made. Where does that leave us now? We want to end these tensions as quickly as possible. Yes, I will agree that no one in authority here has the right or privilege to castigate any inmate or verbally abuse him with profanity, nor insult his national background. I promise you now, and you know my word is my bond, that I will immediately investigate your charges, and if there is one inkling of truth to it, I will take disciplinary action against the guard responsible.
"As you can see, I'm being as fair as I can in this situation. I hope you see it it that way. I have an institution to run. No one has been sent here because he's an angel. But one thing we won't tolerate here is rioting--damaging city or state property, or violence against men sworn to uphold lawful authority. I promise you again that I will look into the charges you made and take stern measures if they prove to be true. All I ask in return is that this institution return to normal immediately, and that if there are further problems, you will sit down and talk them over with me. How about it?"
Minelli looked at Donohue, and without either saying a word to the other, Minelli replied that he would use his influence to get things back to normal. Then he asked, "But how about the food?"
"I promise you, if it is as you say it is, I will try to improve it immediately." The warden rose, signaling an end to the meeting.
By the time the two mobsters returned to the recreation hall, it was almost dinner time. Guards were in huddles everywhere. They were receiving news of the meeting and its outcome. Word among the inmates was being spread, too. Two words were sufficient enough to indicate that the inmates had won: "We eat." What we had won, none of us was sure.
For the next ten days, the food was jazzed up a little. It tasted better and there were more meat and green vegetables on the menu. For the next month Flossie was isolated from the main artery of inmate life and relegated to overseeing a handful of the sick, lame and lazy in the minor duties they were assigned. The administration also played a psychological trick on us in the next ten days. The injured, after being released from the hospital, wore huge bandages, and the administration put them on display. A special table was set up for them in the mess hall. Always in sight, they weren't allowed to communicate with the rest of the inmates. Within a week, the handful grew until it looked like a small army. Always, the head bandages made them stand out. Several weeks later, when they were finally integrated back into the rest of the inmates, we learned that 90 percent of them had no more than a lump on the head. They had not been able to communicate this. They all seemed to be in bad shape; the administrators had scored a point.
It took about two weeks before everything was back to normal. Then the food started to taste lousy again, the mobsters went back to their guerilla tactics on the newcomers and the guards fell back to scowling and growling at the inmates. The showing of a weekly movie was revived, however, with the showing of "Up in Isabel's Room." The female star surely raised morale a bit by showing her upper limbs and the cleavage of her bosom. As one guard said to another, "I'll bet there'll be a lot of bed pounding tonight."
A series of jobs within the institution were sought after. They were the "cream" jobs, the goodies, jobs like electrician, plumber, baker, and fireman. When I arrived at the joint, I had filled my card out with a list of jobs I most preferred: boiler room jobs or jobs requiring the use of tools, like plumber or electrician. About three weeks after the riot, it so happened that the plumber went home. The next morning, while I stood in the yard lineup to go out and dig more ditches, my number was called. Up to the main gate I went. The deputy warden, Sullivan, waited until I approached and removed my hat.
"Because of your good work and your ability to keep your ass out of the wringer here, you're being assigned to work with the plumber. I don't want to hear any complaints about you or of any funny business going on. I expect you to do a good job. You come highly recommended by all the guards you work with. Make one mistake and I throw you back to one of those guards, and you know what will happen to you. So get in there and do a good job."
I thanked him, as was the custom, and walked over to the guard who was a deputized officer and a qualified plumber. This job was considered a plum. The plumber was a first-rate guy. He was an excellent craftsman who knew his tools and their uses and taught me much. My only complaint was that we did not work long enough to fill the long periods of idleness. I was with the plumber for a week when a representative of the Italian mob contacted me. "Hey, plumber. We wanna get a dozen hacksaw blades. We wanna get `em tomorrow, see? Now don't forget. Remember, see? The boys want `em tomorrow, get me?" The sniveling runner for Morelli looked at me like I was infected with mange and backed off smoothly.
It gave me something to ponder. The shop contained hundreds of small cubicles that held parts and pieces of everything necessary to maintain a plumbing business. At this point, there was no record kept of the number of hacksaw blades used or what happened to the old ones when they were discarded. One thing I knew: the plumbing shop was the only place around where hacksaw blades could be found. That meant that if anyone was caught with a hacksaw blade it could be traced directly to the plumbing shop. I didn't want any part of this operation. I disliked the mobsters for what they were--cheap, pimpy characters who were enjoying the better life at the expense of someone else. Screw the bastards. I thought up a plan.
I took three old blades and meticulously reduced them to one-inch pieces. There's very little anyone would want to attempt with a one-inch piece of hacksaw blade. I slipped about six pieces into my pocket. That evening, when I entered the yard after work, I was contacted by the little grinning idiot. "You got the goods?" he asked. I reached into my pocket and handed him the pieces.
"Hey," he said, surprised, "whatcha got here?"
"That's the way I get them," I said. "The guard personally destroys all the used blades and the new blades are under lock and key. Besides, all the blades must be accounted for. There's absolutely no chance of getting a complete blade."
Back at the shop, I took all the old blades and destroyed them. The guard saw me doing it one day. "What's that all about?" he asked.
"I just want to make sure that I'm not held responsible for any blade ending up in hands other than the plumber's," I replied. He understood without elaboration.
Weeks flew by. On Monday mornings, every inmate passed a small platform outside the entrance gate to the yard and mess hall. Monday morning was when inmates due for release went home. These guys were awakened early, dressed in their "outside" clothes, given an early breakfast and made to stand on the platform so they could wave goodbye to all their friends. I had about seven more weeks before I, too, would stand there, making my farewells.
A month or two before one's sentence was up, he had the right to write a letter to the parole board asking for some time off for good behavior. A form letter was available, but after reading it I decided it was too mechanical and cold. I sat down and wrote my own short letter: "I have learned my lesson. I promise to all that I'll never return to this place. I ask for you consideration in allowing me my release before the expiration of my sentence. Thank you." Everyone said that a short note like that wouldn't get to first base. But ten days later it was announced that I was to get two weeks off. It surprised everyone, including the guards, since the parole board was not inclined to be liberal since the riots.
A few days before my release, I spent a lot of time thinking about the joint I was in and what was expected of me when I came out. There was no doubt in my mind about my sincerity of the pledge I had made to the parole board. Never, and I meant never, would I allow myself to end up in a joint like this again. It wasn't the guards or the treatment administered by those who ran the institution that shook me up--it was the inmates, my cell brothers. Their drive to be something they were not on the outside--small-time czars--filled me with the determination never to be placed again in a position where I would have to mingle with such scum.
I shed no tears when I stood on the platform the day I went home. It was different from the last train ride I had taken: no chains, no handcuffs, no guards, no people gaping at me as if I were some animal from another planet. There were two other guys with me. We reported to the parole officers as soon as we pulled into New York City. After signing a slip of paper, we received from the Treasury, on behalf of the people of New York City, the sum of $5.00. The parole officer listed things we could do, followed by a bigger list of things we could not do for fear of landing back in the slammer.
It was nice to be free, but it was also peculiar in a way. For almost a year, I had known that precisely every day of the week at a precise hour, I would walk to a mess room table covered with food, rain or shine. That had ended. Now it was shift and maneuver and scout around on my own again, understanding that there was only one law, the law of survival.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two