|The state of New Jersey called them "sexual psychopaths, passive homosexuals, aggressive 'wolves' with long records of fights and stabbings, escape artists, agitators and incorrigibles of all ages."
They called themselves the "scum of society."
They were the hardest of hard-core prison inmates, and on three occasions in 1952, they placed New Jersey State Prison in Trenton under siege, destroying everything they could find, taking hostages and resisting every plea to surrender.
It was the most violent, tumultuous year in the history of New Jersey prisons — a generation before uprisings like Attica made inmate violence a national issue.
At Trenton, the seething, powder-keg conditions in the prison — a stone-walled, maximum-security facility set smack-dab among houses and corner groceries in the South Ward — were nothing new.
In 1930, the murder of a prison guard and a suicide by an inmate "trusty" had ripped the cover off secret drug-dealing, abuses and favoritism behind bars. The state Prison Department had promised a house-cleaning, which never happened.
Instead, the prison grew as crowded as ever before. By 1952, there were 1,312 cons crowding into a building that was supposed to handled no more than 1,190.
As many as four men might be bunked in a 12-by-7½-foot cell. Some cells, ancient and crumbling, were lit and ventilated only by an razor-thin slit in the wall. Armies of enormous, well-fed rats roamed everywhere.
The job of prison guard had recently been upgraded in title to "correction officer." But a correction officer was recruited more for his ability to bust heads than to deal with prisoners as humans.
"If he hasn't a past history and he is big enough," said the prison warden, William Carty, "he is put on as an officer."
Not that every prison employee was a brutal thug. The prison had its own print shop — which handled much of the state government's official documents — and a staff of civilian printers who trained many an inmate as apprentice.
Myron "Duke" Diudeck was one of those printing instructors. He liked his inmate friends so much that his wife, Helen, got a call from one convicted robber upon his parole, about 1950, and allowed him over at their Quinton Avenue home.
"He just wanted some help to find an apartment and do things like get groceries," recalled Helen Diudeck. "I told Duke and he said he was a good person and welcome in our home. He became one of our friends, and every time he visited us he brought me a box of candy."
On Jan. 20, 1952, the Newark Star-Ledger ran an expose on prison life with the headline: "INSIDE TRENTON PRISON: Dope, sex, booze, dice — and rule by convicts." Among the newspaper's findings, it reported "perversion" was rampant and that one well-connected prisoner was allowed to wear a "zoot suit" in place of his uniform.
In the next few months, inmates got tougher punishments for the most minor of infractions. Some complained of being forced to "stand under the clock" — standing at attention in the prison rotunda for hours at a time. Others griped at not being given forks or knives in the comissary.
Wing 5 was where the hardest of hard-core Jersey criminals ended up, segregated from the rest of the general population in solitary. But even in isolation, they apparently managed to coordinate a plan of attack in the spring of '52.
Just after midnight on March 29, an inmate awoke moaning and begging to be taken to the infirmary. A nurse gave him an aspirin and told him to report sick in the morning. He protested, loudly.
As if prearranged — and the riot almost certainly was planned to some degree — men in adjoining cells began to tear apart their metal cots. Then they used the legs to pry open their cell doors in a mass breakout.
With startling speed, the 52 cons chased their guards out of the wing, barricaded the entrance and wrecked everything they could lay their hands on. They smashed cell toilets, shredded beds, broke windows and set fires.
The inmates were in control of the three-tiered block. Prison guards toting tommy guns ringed the area and blared a loudspeaker message for the men to come out with their hands up. The order was answered with a shower of steel pipes, blackjacks and glass shards.
Warden Carty decided to wear down the inmates rather than storm the cell blocks. Guards lobbed in tear gas and trained a spray of fire hoses through the shattered cell windows. The rioters issued no demands until a last, pitiful plea not to be punished. This was denied, and the last bleary-eyed, soaking-wet rebel gave up 46 hours after the disturbance began.
The riot was over.
The year of riots had just begun.
Electrified by what had happened two weeks earlier, a group of 69 inmates plotted to repeat the riot — this time by seizing the prison print shop.
Many of them already worked in the shop, a two-story section that did much of the state government's official printing, and fashioned homemade knives made from paper-cutting machines. Ringleaders drew up a plan of action, complete with a list of demands.
On April 15, they swung into action. One group of cons invaded the print shop, swinging homemade clubs. Another overpowered their two guards and two civilian instructors and threatened to slit their throats. Exhilarated, the convicts went on another orgy of destruction, smashing $100,000 worth of printing equipment.
Acting as ringleader was Bernard Doak, a one-time thug in Detroit's notorious Purple Gang who was doing time for kidnapping a New Jersey trooper. Another leader, George Zagorski, had plunged a knife into a prison guard's neck a year earlier, killing him. Their spokesman was armed robber William Dickens, who demanded to personally speak to the state prisons commissioner.
The commish, Sanford Bates, agreed, and boldly walked through the prison courtyard and into the print shop. Two newsmen accompanied him.
"We are not giving up," spokesman Dickens told the reporters. "We are outlaws from the word go. We're the scum of society. You can send the National Guard on us but we won't give up. We know we're going to get the worst of it."
The rioters' conditions were a mix of the serious and the seemingly trivial: Carty must resign as warden. Prisoners must not get buzz cuts. The rat infestations and poor sanitation must be ended. End the guards' practice of beating prisoners.
While prison officials tried to talk the men out of the print shop, the fate of four hostages hung in the balance.
Among them was Myron Diudeck — the man who had once welcomed a paroled con into his home.
Diudeck's wife, Helen, learned her husband had been taken hostage while at her job as a decorator for Lenox China. "A friend dashed over to Lenox to tell me so I wouldn't have to hear it on the radio," Helen Diudeck, now 77, recalled. "I was on edge for three days."
In the three days of waiting, Diudeck was assured the standoff would be resolved peacefully. And in fact, the rioters led by Doak had no intention of killing their hostages. Doak told his cohorts: "Anybody tries to hurt them will have his head smashed in." And when sandwiches were delivered to the print shop, Doak had them sliced into enough pieces to feed both his men and the hostages.
At first, the prison officials were obstinate in not granting the captor's demands. But finally, the band of inmates had only one request — to convene a state commission to study the problems in the Trenton prison.
Gov. Alfred Driscoll already intended to do that, so he relayed that message to the hostage-takers. On April 18, three days into the siege, they laid down their weapons and gave up.
The governor personally called Mrs. Diudeck to let her know her husband was going free.
"He'd been keeping a brave face all the time he was kept in that print shop," Helen Diudeck said of her husband, who died in 1981.
"But when he came home and he was in my arms ... did he ever break down. We both just cried.
"He'd lost a few pounds, because they never got much food, but he was in pretty good shape. So I ran to my neighbors and yelled: 'He's all right! He's all right!'"
But the year of riots had not come to its bloody conclusion.
Eleven of the ringleaders of the first prison riot had been transferred, under heavy security, to Rahway Prison. On April 17, the new convicts instigated another riot, seizing an entire cell block and holding nine guards hostage. They gave up their "demonstration" in five days, claiming they had proved their point.
On Oct. 12, another flareup occurred in Trenton. About 20 desperadoes stormed the prison's Wing 7, brandishing clubs fashioned from chair legs and shanks cut from sheet metal. They held three guards hostage and tried to seal off the wing from the rest of the prison.
By this time, state prison officials had grown impatient with rioting. A team of guards stormed the wing, tommy guns blazing.
Two inmates were wounded; none died. When the smoke cleared, investigators discovered the latest outburst was not a protest at all, but an attempt at a mass breakout by sawing through the bars above Federal Street. None of the would-be escapers had made more than a dent in the bars.
When a blue-ribbon state panel concluded its probe of prison conditions, it recommended abandoning the decaying hulk of a prison and building a new maximum-security pen — "properly located, planned and constructed in accordance with the highest standards of modern penology."
The advice was never followed. New Jersey State Prison remains now what it was in 1952 — a fortress inhabited by Jersey's toughest criminals in the heart of a residential neighborhood.
|1952: The powder keg blows|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|