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Former Corrections Officer and Teacher Harry Camisa
Earned His MCCC Degree and So Much More

5/14/13


West Windsor, N.J. – Harry Camisa '73 (A.A. Humanities and Social Science), of Yardville, was well into his career as a corrections officer at Trenton State Prison in the 1960s when, in mid-life, he began taking classes through Mercer County Community College. The Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a government-funded program, meant that his college education came right to him at his workplace.

At the time, Camisa recalls that a college education “was the furthest thing from my mind,” but he decided to give it try.

One of his early classes was English Composition, taught by then first-year MCCC Professor James Franklin (now a retired professor emeritus). Camisa says that his wife, Virginia, a communications professional, encouraged and supported his efforts.  He also readily admits that she helped him with his first paper – perhaps a little too much.

“When Professor Franklin returned my paper, he said to me, ‘Harry, do you know what a bodice is?' He knew I didn’t write that paper,” Camisa recalls.  Having learned a critical lesson, Camisa began to embrace his education and earned his associate degree in Humanities and Social Science in 1973.

Now 84 and long retired, Camisa says the decision to go to college was one of the best things he could have done. “Life without an education would have been a whole lot different for me.”

With his own appreciation for education growing, Camisa decided to become a teacher and earned his bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey).

Harry Camisa, seated, with Professor Emeritus
Jim Franklin, is pictured at a "Meet the Authors"
event recently held at Mercer. The two
co-authored "Inside Out: Fifty Years Behind the
Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison."

His schedule was grueling during that time. “I worked from 6:20 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. in the prison. Then I went home and helped out with my wife’s flower business, making deliveries and tending to the flowers. Then I went to class at Trenton State and did homework – and then I got a few hours of sleep,” Camisa said.  He adds that he and his wife were also raising three children.

After years without contact, there was another chapter still to be written between Camisa and his former teacher, Jim Franklin.  A new section of Trenton State Prison was built in the mid-1980s that doubled its capacity. Franklin and his colleague, Professor Laura Knight, were curious to see the new addition, as well as tour the original section dating back to 1835. They got in touch with Camisa, who greed to serve as their guide. (The facility was renamed New Jersey State Prison with the opening of the new section.)

As he walked them around, Camisa told story after story about his work as a prison guard and teacher, and some of the notorious felons he knew, drawing from a career spanning 50 years, the longest of any Department of Corrections employee.

With Knight’s prodding, Franklin began to think about writing a book to capture Camisa’s unforgettable tales, which included witnessing 13 executions by electrocution and being taken hostage twice.

A partnership was born.  Camisa said, “I had the stories and Jim had the words.”

The book, entitled “Inside Out: Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison,” was published in hardcover in 2002; a paperback edition was published in 2009 with some additional tales of infamous criminals and their fates. It has caught on as a supplemental text in Criminal Justice courses and is sold at six colleges around the state.

Readers get an inside look at well-known inmates such as Charlie “The Bug” Workman, who gunned down Dutch Schultz in the 1930’s, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, whose criminal career was the subject of two HBO television specials, and Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted and eventually exonerated.   It includes archival photos from the Trenton Times and some never-before-published photos from Trentonian photographer Bob Harris, also an MCCC alumnus.

Nowadays, Camisa and Franklin frequently hit the road together to appear as guest speakers in college classrooms.  There, the two bring Camisa’s prison world to life – Harry with the stories and Jim with his author's eye view.

Camisa couldn’t be happier about his newfound career as a public speaker and storyteller.  “It keeps me sharp,” he said.

“Inside Out” is available through www.windsorpress.net, as well as through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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