Guard recounts decades spent at Trenton prison
weaves interesting story
of longtime employee
Guard recounts decades
spent at Trenton prison
Freehold Twp. author
weaves interesting story
of longtime employee
BY DICK METZGAR
There was one big difference between Harry Camisa and the people he dealt with every day on his job — he could go home to do anything he wanted to, but the inmates at New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison could not.
Camisa worked behind the walls of the prison and rubbed elbows with some of the nation’s deadliest and most notorious criminals from 1950 until his retirement in 2002. He said that he, too, became institutionalized during that period.
To this day, Camisa said, he enjoyed his job even as he interacted with criminals, some of whom seemingly killed without mercy.
"I was never bored in all of my years inside the prison," said Camisa, 76, who lives in Ewing Township, Mercer County, with his wife of 49 years, Virginia. "Yes, I was definitely institutionalized. It does become a way of life for you."
Camisa’s experiences during 50 years of work are chronicled in a new book, "Inside Out — Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison," as told to Freehold Township resident Jim Franklin.
Franklin is a professor of English and journalism at Mercer County Community College, West Windsor.
Camisa, a native of Trenton, started working as a guard at the prison in 1950 and after his retirement from that position in 1979 he went back inside the walls of the prison in 1980 as a GED test proctor.
"Harry was a student of mine in an English composition class in 1970 as part of a special college program for prison guards," Franklin said. "I busted him for not writing his own papers and we stayed friends from that point on. Harry has always been a great storyteller, so about four years ago we decided to collaborate on the book."
Camisa got to know many of New Jersey’s notable felons, ranging from Charlie "The Bug" Workman, who gunned down the notorious mobster Dutch Schultz in Newark in 1935, to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a top-ranked professional boxer in the 1960s whose life and case were the subject of the movie "Hurricane," starring Denzel Washington.
Monmouth County serial killer Rich-ard Biegenwald worked for Camisa in the print shop, along with John List, the Westfield accountant who killed his entire family, meticulously lined up their bodies in the ballroom of their Victorian mansion and then went on the lam for 17 years. List was eventually tracked down after his case was feature on the "America’s Most Wanted" television series.
Another inmate Camisa knew was Jesse Timmendequas, whose case resulted in the passage of "Megan’s Law" in New Jersey and similar laws across the country.
Timmendequas, who had prior convictions for sex offenses, was out of prison in 1994 when he raped and killed Megan Kanka, 7, of Hamilton Township. He was sentenced to death and is still incarcerated in Trenton State Prison.
Megan’s parents said they were unaware that a person with a history of sex offenses was living in their neighborhood. The law they fought to see passed requires convicted sex offenders to register with law enforcement authorities and in some cases for the community to be notified of the person’s presence in a neighborhood.
"Whenever I have seen Timmendequas being escorted through the jail, he has struck me as a trapped, frightened animal," Camisa said in the book. "My impression of him is that he is definitely retarded. He’s a small, skinny guy, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, maybe 140 pounds. Whenever I’ve seen him, he’s been turned at a 45-degree angle facing into the wall, like he’s afraid to see anyone or have anyone make eye contact with him. I think he’s mainly trying to shield himself because he knows that about 90 percent of the population would kill him in a heartbeat if they could get at him."
Camisa said an inmate who has committed a crime such as the one that Timmendequas was convicted of committing rates about a .0000001 on a scale of 1-10 among the prison inmates’ own system.
Camisa, who witnessed 13 executions and was held hostage twice, said he walked a tightrope in his relationships with his fellow guards and the inmates. He said if he became too friendly with the inmates the other guards might resent him, while if he became too friendly with other guards the inmates might resent it.
He was held hostage during the Muslim riots at the prison in 1975 and again in 1985 when an inmate became incensed with the director of education.
Camisa recalled that he did become close friends with one inmate, Teddy Roberts, a convicted murderer from Elizabeth who was an outstanding boxer in the prison yard back in the late 1950s.
"You could see a better boxing show in the prison yard back then than you would see on the Friday night fights on television," Camisa said.
Camisa said bouts between Roberts and Hurricane Carter in the prison were classic fights.
"In his book ‘The Sixteenth Round,’ Carter mentions Roberts as one of the hard-hitting fighters in the yard at the prison who ‘could make you dance bowlegged, put you to sleep, make you dream and then wake you up before you knew you was even hit,’ " Camisa said.
After Roberts was paroled in the late 1970s, Camisa helped him earn a GED diploma and get a job working for the New Jersey Department of Corrections and teaching construction trades at the Yardville correctional facility. Roberts also retired from state employment in 2002.
"Inside Out — Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison" is published by Windsor Press and Publishing. For more information visit windsorpress.net or call toll-free 1-866-577-6327.