Hellraisers Journal: Class War Prisoner, Patrick Quinlan, Exposes Horrors of New Jersey’s Modern-Day Bastile

There are no limits to which
powers of privilege will not go
to keep the workers in slavery.
-Mother Jones

Hellraisers Journal, Wednesday December 27, 1916
From the Appeal to Reason: Newly Released, Quinlan Describes Prison Life

Unspeakable Horrors of New Jersey’s
Bastile Exposed by Quinlan

“Political Prisoner”, Recently Liberated After Serving Unjust Sentence, Tells Appeal Readers of Atrocities Practiced on Helpless Victims of Social System-Quinlan’s Remarkable Training as Labor Agitator Combined With His Terrible Experience in Penitentiary Brings Forth This Unprecedented Story of “Crimes Against Criminals.”



Paterson Silk Strike, Pat Quinlan, Current of 1913

My experience in New Jersey’s penitentiary compels me to say that I am not prepared to accept in full the statement so often made that our public institutions reflect the spirit, the mind of the people. If it were entirely true that institutions were the mirror of a people, then the state of New Jersey and its two and a half million inhabitants would occupy the largest place in Dante’s Inferno of lost souls. One would be compelled to conclude that the people of New Jersey were fiendish in their cruelty, diabolical in their oppression, medieval in their conception of their duties toward the inmates of their state prison, located within the shadow of their capitol at Trenton. But they are not, I am sure, more cruel, not more oppressive, nor more medieval than the people of other states; they are, only, perhaps, more indifferent and, I hope they will pardon me, more ignorant. Their social soul, their public conscience, is not formed to harmonize with the spirit of the times, nor is it developed to work sympathetically with its progressive sister states.

If New Jersey’s penitentiary reflected the people of the state, then we would be prepared to disagree with Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that one cannot indict a whole people, and proceed to charge the two and a half million people of the state of New Jersey with murder, robbery and graft.

Pictures the Bastile.

With this brief apology for the citizens of New Jersey, I will, in the following lines, give the readers of this paper an unexaggerated picture of New Jersey’s bastile, with the hope that the same good results will be accomplished for its unfortunate inmates as were done for the victims of Fort Leavenworth federal prison.

Men who had been in every big prison in the United States told me in language that was emphatic as well as picturesque, that Trenton’s “Big House” was the worst prison in the country, and the study of prison reports and the literature of penology convince me that the convicts told the truth. Personally, I cannot imagine anything worse except the contract prison camps of the south and the Siberian dungeons, where the victims of the Russian autocracy are buried alive.

In speaking of the New Jersey prison, one must forget the romances of dumas and their pictures of medieval prisons when literature is brought to mind, but rather remember the brutal realism of Zola and other writers of our own day; for modern efficiency and ingenuity have robbed the prisons of the color and the glamor which imaginative writers wove around them for the entertainment of their readers.

It is hard to characterize the Trenton prison in a phrase or paragraph. Too much brutality, too much viciousness, too much official and administrative stupidity obtains there to be so reduced by me-perhaps the readers can.

The Country’s Worst.

As every theory of principle on which the prison was built is set aside or twisted out of recognition by the officials, as every principle of reformation and reform is nullified or defeated, one must admit the charge of the old-time prisoners and accept the impeachment that the Trenton penitentiary is the worst in the country.

We will now proceed to state the facts on which the above charge is based. The first principle in the maintenance of the life of the prisoners, as of all mankind, is wholesome food. But not by the wildest stretch of the imagination can it be said that the food served to the Trenton prisoners is nutritious or wholesome.

The coffee is by no means libelously termed “boot-leg” by the prisoners. The frankfurters were so often tainted, green and rotten as to be frequently rejected even by the hungry and by no means [fastidious?] prisoners. The corned beef was usually the worst that the stockyards could supply, and the vegetable that was served with it was almost invariably spoiled in the cooking; as indeed, were mostly all the other foods supplied to the men. Stew was served twice a week, and, judging from the nauseating odor, its chief ingredient must have been collected from the odds and ends and scraps of an ill-kept slaughterhouse.

The Sunday dinner of pea soup contained little facts, less peas, and much water. The only article of diet that could be classed as good was the bread, but as “man cannot live by bread alone,” this staple only served to aggravate instead of to satisfy.

It cannot be said that bad food was served in the interest of economy, for the Legislature always made appropriations for adequate supplies. The waste, the graft, and the incompetency were chiefly due to the official in charge of the kitchen, who never was trained for the work and who thought more of pleasing the dishonest contractors than of satisfying the prisoners by giving them well-cooked, wholesome meals.

Sickness Is Prevalent.

The natural result of bad food was constipation and sickness. He was a remarkably strong man, indeed, that left the prison without his health being seriously or permanently impaired. Several times in the course of almost two years, I witnessed violent outbreaks on the part of the prisoners against the officials because of the extremely bad food served to them. On four or five occasions the cries of the men protesting against the bad soup were heard by the people in the streets of Trenton.

After food the chief factor in the life of the prisoners are air, light and recreation. These they are given in absurdly diminutive quantities. The shops wherein the men work are as ill-ventilated as those of the worst sweatshops in Philadelphia or New York. As the men are marched directly from the workshops to their cells without a chance to enjoy a breath of fresh air or a ray of sunshine, except for a half or three-quarters of an hour at the end of the week, they, in consequence, become victims of the white plague. As a nursery for tuberculosis the prison is most fertile-indeed it has few if any rivals in the country. I am not exaggerating when I say that to sentence a man suffering from weak lungs, bronchial and throat troubles to a long stay in Trenton prison is to sentence him to death.

Quinlan, Tresca, EGF, Lessig, BBH, Paterson Silk Strike, 1913
Pat Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig
and Big Bill Haywood during Paterson Silk Strike of 1913

Sanitation Is Primitive.

A glance at the cells completes the vicious circle. The most primitive system of sanitation obtains in the prison. Buckets are used in one section of the building and an open sewer in two others to retain and later carry off the swill, refuse and offal. Despite the orders of the Board of Health which repeatedly condemned the old buildings as unfit for habitation, over five hundred men are confined in them with their damp and filthy infected cells and are compelled to inhale the foul odors of the pails and the damp walls or the gas from the open sewer.

A great many people innocently believe that prisoners will develop mentally and spiritually since they are cut off from the world with its temptations and distractions, and have little else to think of but their own souls and bodies. But so far as Trenton is concerned, they are laboring under a delusion. Trenton has two well-paid chaplains, but only a makeshift chapel or church in which to preach on alternate Sundays. Thinking the minister, the chapel and his preaching would relieve the terrible pall that enshrouds the prisoners, I attended church services several times, only to go away disgusted with its aridness and cynicism.

I concluded that one might as well try to grow lilies in a sewer or on the asphalt pavement of Broadway as to try to cultivate spiritual aspirations in the blunted, stunted, defective minds of the inmates of the New Jersey penitentiary.

The so-called chapel was unfit as a place for mental and spiritual exaltation, and the chaplain was unworthy of his great task. None but the fakir or “mission-stiff” pretended to take him seriously. The processes of human demoralization that began in the trial courtroom were completed in the chapel. So demoralizing was the minister that one could safely assert that he was doing a most serious damage to society by his lack of vision, his prison ways and his institutionalized mind than the wickedest and most depraved convict.

Thrown Into Old Dungeon.

When an institution serves rotten food to its inmates, compels them to sleep in cells infected with vermin, provides no recreation facilities, no adequate means for spiritual development, its disciplinary measures are bound to be brutal, sickening and deadening. An old dungeon about thirty feet under ground, though condemned by the health authorities, is still used by the keepers for punishing those against whom they may have a grudge or who may have been given the excuse because of the violation of some stupid or impossible rule. Into this inquisition-like dungeon men are pushed or thrown for six days, their suspenders taken from them, deprived of tobacco, given only a pint of water and a cut of bread twice a day with their hands bound by steel bracelets or cuffs, which meant that they had to stay practically in the one position all the time from the moment the prisoners entered “the hole,” until taken out at the end of six days. After an alternate day in the regular cells, if the prisoner did not beg the pardon of the offended official, apologize or express sorrow for his supposed or proved misconduct, he is “put down” again for another six days. This process is repeated four and five times in cases where the prisoner displays stubbornness in refusing to apologize to the keepers, or in declining to “squeal” on his fellow-prisoners, or in refusing to work. The crowning feature of this diabolical form of punishment was the absence of all lavatory facilities.

Cowardly Brutes Are Cautious.

The keepers were, in most cases, a law unto themselves, but they were, as a rule, careful in their cowardly brutality. They clubbed or chained only those who had no friends or those whose friends had no means of retaliating by bringing them up on charges before the governing body of Board of Inspectors.

From a very large list of prisoners punished, I have selected the following cases, which illustrate the cruel and barbarous methods in vogue in Trenton Penitentiary:

John Maioni, an Italian, sentenced from Mercer county (Trenton), to life imprisonment, was chained to the wall like a wild animal for a whole year, then had the chain taken off and again put on for periods of one and two months.

Frank Albert was serving a sentence of from three and a half to seven years, was chained to the wall day and night for six months, followed by solitary confinement until he became violently insane. He was taken to the asylum to be cured of his insanity. It is thus the vicious circle of graft, penology and insane asylum is perpetuated.

William Pulley of Monmouth county, and a life prisoner, was chained up for three or four months, followed by solitary confinement until he became a pronounced “bat” (prison slang for lunatic), when he was sent to the home for the insane.

Undermine Prisoners’ Minds.

Perhaps the most stupid case of all in the annals of official blindness was that of Joseph Ferrati of Monmouth county, whose “bit” was three to seven years. Ferrati was not alone chained to the cell wall, but had an additional torture inflicted on him by being handcuffed at the same time. From solitary confinement, Ferrati was removed, but not to milder, more congenial quarters, but rather to worse-he was lodged with two other insane or semi-insane men. If well-balanced men, when forcibly lodged together will dispute and fight, it is only natural that defectives should quarrel when in the same situation. But logic and reason are not included in the sum total of a jailer’s virtues and qualifications.

The keepers did not stop to think how Ferrati would get along with his new companions; whether he would be killed on the first night or “live happy ever after” with them, did not trouble them in the least. If anything serious did happen, they no doubt figured that it could be covered up as other terrible things had been in the past. One night, on the culmination of an argument between Ferrati and one of his companions in the cell, they fought and hacked each other with daggers made from the side irons of the wooden wash-pails. For a while they ferociously fought and cut one another in silence, but as they progressed in the fight and they began to wound each other, they made much noise which attracted the attention of one of the night keepers, who by no means hurried to the scene of the conflict.

When the night keeper finally reached Ferrati’s cell, he found Ferrati, the victor of the battle, standing over his fallen and dying antagonist, the pale light of the moon that trickled through the narrow window revealing their drawn faces and naked, blood-smeared bodies, and the third occupant crouched terror-stricken in the corner. The additional light of the keeper’s lantern revealed nothing more than the moonlight did, and one more dark, bloody and preventable tragedy was added to the somber and ghastly annals of New Jersey’s prison.

Ferrati was tried for the murder of his companion, in the Mercer county court, and was acquitted by the jury on the ground of insanity. It is almost unbelievable to relate that Ferrati, who was publicly and legally declared insane, was taken back to the prison and kept there for several months before he was permanently sent to the state insane asylum.

Is Driven Insane.

George Graham, who suffered from a loathsome disease, and who, because of the failure of the officials to give him proper medical attention, developed from a really quiet, to a violently insane man. Graham was chained to the wall for a time, and later sent to the asylum.

Perhaps the most hideously brutal instance that occurred in the history of the prison was that of Dominick Mangani, from Union county (Elizabeth). Owing to the petty grafting on Mangani by a keeper, he was frequently provoked into violent outbursts, and one day he stabbed a different keeper, severely wounding him. Despite their quarrels, and their different and varied political complexions, jailers, like policemen and others of the lower orders in officialdom, resent any disputing of their prerogatives, and present a united and solid front against any prisoner under them, who may have the hardihood to dispute or deny their inalienable right to graft on the defenseless.

Woe unto the convict who strikes back at the keeper. Where he formerly had only one tyrant he now has a hundred persecuting him. And they never let up until the prisoner is removed to an insane asylum, is discharged from the prison, or is dead. Excuses don’t count with the keepers. It was a foregone conclusion that Mangani was a marked man from the moment that he struck back at what he thought was his persecutor. For six long years a ball and chain was riveted to his leg. Never was it removed, until the chain had made an ugly sore on his leg, and until the sore began to fester, when someone humanely suggested at the end of four and half years that the ball and chain be removed until Mangani’s leg was given a chance to heal and get well.

The center keeper and deputy warden frowned at the suggestion and ordered the ball and chain riveted on the other leg. “Put it on the other one,” said he, which was accordingly done. For six years Mangani was kept in solitary confinement, shut off from the miserable little exercise yard, denied speech and association with his fellow-convicts, and deprived of tobacco, reading matter and the meanest of the usual prison privileges.

Never for a moment during the six years of his hideous punishment was Mangani permitted to see a friend. The prison doors were slammed in the faces of his weeping wife and children. They were not allowed to greet him. He was even prevented from going to the prison chapel to hear mass. In short, Dominick Mangani was buried alive for six years, and except for the rattle of the chains and an occasional agonizing, horrible scream or roar, his cell was a coffin. A few months ago he was sent to the state asylum-I saw him removed-and a more tragic, pitiable spectacle I have never seen in all my wanderings around the world from Chili to China from Sydney to Dublin.


[Photographs added.]


Appeal to Reason
(Girard, Kansas)
-Dec 23, 1916

Pat Quinlan from Current Opinion of 1913
Pat Quinlan, with other IWW organizers at Paterson, New Jersey 1913

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Tag: Patrick Quinlan

Dante’s Inferno

Edmund Burke

Émile Zola