East Jersey State Prison

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East Jersey State Prison.

East Jersey State Prison (EJSP), originally Rahway State Prison, was established in 1896 as the first reformatory in New Jersey.[1] It is a maximum-security institution operated by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, housing approximately 1,500 men as of 2013.[2]

The prison is actually located in Avenel in Woodbridge Township, at the border with Rahway. The prison's mailing address is in Rahway. The prison's official name was changed to East Jersey State Prison as of November 30, 1988, at the request of the citizens of Rahway.[3] The prison's large dome is a landmark that can be seen from various parts surrounding, including US Route 1-9 and New Jersey Transit's North Jersey Coast Line trains.


In 1895, the New Jersey Legislature voted to establish the state’s first reformatory. A year later, construction began at Rahway on state property known as Edgar Farm.[4] The prison opened in 1901 and originally housed male offenders between the ages of 16 and 30 who were first-time offenders.[4]

The first superintendent, J. E. Heg, served only a year. He was succeeded by Joseph W. Martin who led the institution until his death in 1909.[5] Martin was succeeded by Dr. Frank Moore, until he retired in 1929.[6]

The administration building, cell houses, schoolrooms, chapel, shops, and other buildings were surrounded by a large wall encompassing 21 acres (85,000 m2). The entire prison was surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland that the inmates worked.[1][6] By 1908, there were two four-tiered cell houses. One cell house contained 256 cells measuring 9’ x 5’ x 8.6’, while the other had 384 cells that were only 7.1’ x 5’ x 8’. A 1928 inspection reported that the cells were equipped “with a fair quality of toilet and lavatory.”[1]

The reformatory years[edit]

When the institution first opened in 1901, it was called simply the New Jersey Reformatory. The reformatory held 193 young men.[4] The number of inmates had increased to 525 by 1912 and to 745 by 1928.[1][4] Of the 514 prisoners admitted during 1928, 304 (59%) were under twenty years of age, 164 (32%) were twenty to twenty-four, and 46 (9%) were from twenty-five to twenty-nine years old, with a racial breakdown of 406 (79%) White and 108 (21%) African-American.[1] Rahway was run on a “grading” system that graded the conduct of each inmate. A book of rules and regulations supplied to each inmate when he arrived discussed what was expected of him and the consequences of violating the rules. All inmates entered the prison in the “second grade” and had the opportunity to advance or be demoted depending on their behavior.[1] Inmates in different grades were granted different privileges.

The inmates’ day at Rahway consisted primarily of school and work. They woke at 5:45 a.m. with lights out at 9 p.m. Those who had to attend school went to classes half the day and worked the other half. Vocational training and jobs were offered, including tailoring, cooking, shoemaking, printing, electrical work, farming/gardening, plumbing, and painting.[4]

Transition to adult prison[edit]

With the opening of reformatories at Annandale (1928) and Bordentown (1937), Rahway changed from a reformatory to a prison for adult males.[5][6]

In 1930, construction began on additions to the institution. Between 1931 and 1932, industrial and laundry buildings were added. A new dormitory wing, “Two Wing,” was built in 1932. It contained two dormitories housing 150 men each, thereby increasing the prison’s capacity to 900 inmates.[6] In 1951, Rahway’s capacity was furthered increased to 1,000, when the last wing, “Three Wing,” was constructed. As years passed, renovation on the institution continued. In 1967, one of the old buildings was improved and made into “Five Wing.” From 1985 to 1988, trailers were erected and old buildings renovated (textile and laundry) for housing and dining facilities. These new additions became “Six, Seven, and Eight Wings.”[5]

Riots and escapes[edit]

From April 17–22, 1952, prisoners held officers hostage in a riot that took place because inmates were being beaten with nightsticks by officers prior to the riot. The riot ended when the inmates were gassed.[7] On Thanksgiving Day in 1971, five hundred inmates held six hostages, including the warden, for 24 hours. Six officers were injured, three with stab wounds in the early hours of the riot.[7] The inmates demanded a more sufficient diet, regulation of commissary prices, improvement of the educational system and vocation training, better discipline of officers, and additional medicine supplies including aspirin. Ultimately, the prison was retaken with no loss of life and the captives were set free without the use of firearms.[4][8]

On August 11, 1972, three convicted murderers escaped by sawing the bars of a third floor window. Later three officers were suspended for being responsible. In August 1980, in an effort to reduce the numbers of escapes, prisoners were issued gray prison uniforms.[clarification needed]

East Jersey Prison today[edit]

In 1988, Rahway State Prison was renamed East Jersey State Prison when Rahway residents claimed that being identified with the prison stigmatized the city and affected property values.[9] However, residents of the region surrounding the prison still refer to building by its former name. East Jersey State Prison’s demographic makeup is much different than what it was when it first opened in 1901.

The Education Department of East Jersey State Prison offers a variety of programs to the inmates. Vocational training courses include auto-body, auto mechanics, culinary arts, painting and decorating, and horticulture. The prison offers primary education (A.B.E. Course) and secondary education (GED) courses to the inmates. Inmates who are high school or GED graduates can take college classes offered through Union County College’s “Project Inside” program.

The prison in popular culture[edit]

East Jersey State Prison from a longer perspective

The prison is known for three high-profile professional boxers who were at one time incarcerated there. Former middleweight contender Rubin Carter, freed in 1985 after being sentenced to two consecutive life terms, was featured in the 1975 Bob Dylan song "Hurricane" and the 1999 film The Hurricane.[10] Dwight Muhammad Qawi became a two-time world champion after leaving Rahway. A contemporary of Qawi, James Scott, was a title contender of the same era who fought many times inside the prison itself, including a fight against Qawi in 1981.

The prison served as the filming location for the 1978 Academy Award winning documentary Scared Straight! The prison is also the birthplace of the Lifers' Group, in which prison inmates participate in a government-sponsored hip hop music program, recording such songs as "The Real Deal" and "Belly of the Beast" to discourage children from becoming criminals. It released an album and EP on the Walt Disney Company's Hollywood Records during the 1990s and briefly mentioned in John Sayles film City of Hope (1991).

The prison's distinctive architecture, with its large dome and imposing metal gates, has appeared in many films including Lock Up, Crazy Joe, Rounders, Malcolm X, He Got Game, The Hurricane, and Ocean's Eleven and Jersey Boys (film).

Notable Inmates[edit]

  • Robert Reldan - Serving a life sentence for two counts of murder.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Cox, William, Lovell Bixby and William Root,"Handbook of American Prisons and Reformatories," Vol. 1, NY: The Osborne Assoc., 1933
  2. ^ State of New Jersey Department of Corrections Contact Us. Accessed December 23, 2013.
  3. ^ What's in a name? Plenty if we're talking prison, Home News Tribune, February 15, 2001.
  4. ^ a b c d e f White, K., East Jersey State Prison Celebrates 100 Years, 1996, available from East Jersey State Prison
  5. ^ a b c East Jersey State Prison: Brief History, March 1995, available from East Jersey State Prison
  6. ^ a b c d Garret, Paul and Austin MacCormick, "Handbook of American Prison and Reformatories," NY: National Society of Penal Information, Inc., 1929
  7. ^ a b Reilly, M., "Locked In Time: East Jersey State Prison marks 100 years of changeing [sic?] penal roles. The Star Ledger. March 26, 1996.
  8. ^ "Riot at the big house", Home News Tribune, August 17, 2004. Accessed August 6, 2007.
  9. ^ Reilly, M., 100 years inside (and outside) the walls. The Star Ledger. March 26, 1996
  10. ^ Raab, Selwyn. "UNUSUAL LEGAL MOVE FREED RUBIN CARTER, LAWYERS SAY", The New York Times, November 10, 1985. Accessed November 11, 2007. "Mr. Carter had received two consecutive life terms, or a minimum of 30 years. Judge Sarokin ordered him released from Rahway State Prison without bail on Friday."

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°35′N 74°16′W / 40.59°N 74.27°W / 40.59; -74.27