If you think about it now, it could never happen.

Just imagine a man at the start of what would amount to a three-decade prison sentence that began with a messy death on the streets of New Jersey, who was then allowed to box inside the prison walls.

Then, imagine those fights being televised, from within that prison, with tickets sold to members of the public who went in to watch, broadcast teams entering with all of their equipment, and then the likes of “Sugar” Ray Leonard going in to offer color commentary among queues of journalists entering to cover the event.

Then imagine that Muhammad Ali donated kit to the prison’s boxing program, and that the likes of comedian Bob Hope endorsed it.

It was, simply put, a different time.

It was Rahway State Penitentiary in New Jersey, founded in 1896, and it later became known as East Jersey Prison in a move driven by local residents, who claimed their city had been stigmatized by the facility and that it drove property values down.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s there were warring Muslim factions within the prison that resulted in an infamous riot on Thanksgiving Day of 1971, and there had been long-standing issues between the inmates and the guards.

Five hundred inmates held six hostages – the warden included. Three officers were stabbed, and the prisoners demanded better food, improved educational programs, guards who showed more fairness and discipline, and a great supply of medicinal provisions.    

Although there was no loss of life, the authorities in New Jersey had seen enough and swiftly moved to make changes.

One of their first moves was to replace the warden. In 1973, in came former prison guard Bob Hatrak. Things would never be the same again, and one of boxing’s most unlikely chapters was about to be written.

It was the imperfect storm. 

Hatrak was keen on giving inmates opportunities and was a staunch believer in rehabilitation. He felt he could help save the most lost souls, and there were plenty in New Jersey – confused, conflicted, and falling between the cracks of different criminal gangs and religious groups.

It was a murderous melting pot, and the correctional institute still wore scars from the riot two years earlier.

Hatrak, who had a long, decorated career in reform, now lives in Oregon, but he enjoys an excuse to reflect on those incredible days. 

“Yeah absolutely, and one of the things that I did when I got there, I wanted to transform that area where the riot [one of the major halls] had occurred into something that was very program-orientated, and a change of image, and you know what?” he said. “We accomplished that.”

By the time Hatrak left in tumultuous circumstances almost a decade later, the prison boasted more program space inside the walls than cell space, which had been one of his many goals.

Not too long after Hatrak arrived, so too did James Scott.

Scott had been a troubled teen who had spent a lifetime crossing the line and getting into trouble. He found himself locked up on many occasions. He escaped a jail or two, as well.

In a bid for a fresh start Scott, who had boxed as an amateur, went south to Miami to work with promoter-manager Chris Dundee – who operated out of the 5th Street Gym with his brother, Angelo – and publicist Hank Kaplan and he turned pro.

After 11 pro fights – all at the Miami Auditorium – Scott went back to New Jersey and got into more trouble.

He had beaten contenders like Baby Boy Rolle and Ray Anderson and some stories indicated he had just been a day away from signing to fight WBC champion John Conteh before his life changed.

After defeating then 9-0-1 contender Jesse Burnett – who no one enjoyed fighting – in Miami in 1975, Scott’s next bout would come some three years later and it would be within the confines of Rahway.  


Hatrak and Scott already knew one another. Earlier in Hatrak’s career, in another prison he had met Scott, then just a youngster but already an inmate, and Hatrak recalled Scott fending off predators with a lead pipe.

When they were reunited in Rahway, Hatrak knew he had someone to head up a boxing program he wanted to implement. He wanted inmates to be able to learn self-respect, and have confidence and discipline, and Hatrak wanted them to be able to move in boxing circles whenever they were released – whether it was as fighters, trainers, cutmen or officials and judges. That was what the program would do – rehabilitate, educate, and give them a springboard into a boxing career post-jail.   

“You know what,” Hatrak says thoughtfully, “I really don’t think it can ever happen again. But I sure wish it could because I’d like to see it again. I think they copied us somewhat in Thailand though – they’ve got a boxing school over there much like ours, and it’s called Fighting for Parole so they can fight their way out of prison there.” 

While there might be something similar, what happened in Rahway will never be replicated anywhere. Scott rose through the ranks, defeated top contenders who went and fought him in prison – be it Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, future WBA light heavyweight champion Yaqui Lopez, or Richie Kates – and for a while was called the number one challenger for their title by the WBA. 

Despite having lived it, Hatrak can see with hindsight that he was part of a hugely unique period.

“It really, really was,” Hatrak smiles, fondly. “I think that allowing paying customers to come in to a maximum-security prison – that was high risk – and I don’t know that many people who would do that. But I’d do it again.”

There was no airport-style security back then.

“What we did was, we had a stamp that we stamped on people’s hands, and they’d have to go through ultraviolet to show the stamp on the way out, and the same with the large number of media that came to the events. 

“They’d have to go through and get stamped. The media was not hard, but it was a challenge for us because they came in with ropes, ladders, big, long extension cords, and it took forever for us to check them in and out, you know? But anyway, we never had a problem. My guys really did a good job. 

Initially “Scotty”, as Hatrak affectionately refers to him, boxed in the recreation yard, against Diego Roberson and Fred Brown, but then his fights were moved inside and into the sports hall, firstly against Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in a fight televised by HBO. 

“The atmosphere of the prison was something I had never experienced in all the years of working in prison,” Hatrak says of hosting the events in Rahway. “It just didn’t feel like prison on fight day – it was almost like being in Madison Square Garden. I’m trying to remember the man’s name who was the voice of the New York Knicks, Marv Albert. Marv made the statement – and he came in a couple of times to talk to James [Scott] – he said that when he visited, all the guys wanted to do was talk basketball and boxing, and he said it was like being at summer camp. He said it was not like being in a prison, and that’s quite a compliment because that’s what I was driving for. I was trying to normalize that environment.” 

Legend built around Scott. Top contenders spoke of their fear and the intimidation of stepping in behind the prison walls to face Scott; the likes of Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (“Man, I’m from Brooklyn”) and Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a previous resident and sparring partner for Scott’s were unfazed.

Still, many couldn’t understand Scott’s fitness and resolve. They did not know what motivated him and why he kept coming. Scott was relentless in the ring and in training. They called him Superman. He would complete 1,000 push-ups a day – “50 sets of 20 in a clip,” he told me many years later, while in Northern State Prison – and he ran endless laps of the yard.

Then came fight night, and more than one opponent subsequently talked about how intimidating boxing inside was. But Hatrak loved it.

“Well, I was sitting on the stage just above the ring with my boss, and he looked like he wished he wasn’t there, but I was like… it was like being in high school again, getting ready to pitch a game and it was that kind of excitement,” he said. 

“I was really, really excited. I was really vocal and rooting for ‘Scotty’ to win, I think that his crew, his handlers and all put on a heck of a display when he came into the ring. The music was loud; people were yelling. It was like nothing else that I'd ever been at, and I had trouble even understanding that only a few years earlier that same venue had hosted a bloody riot.” 

There was all kinds of speculation about Scott – that prisoners were annoyed because of favoritism, and that Hatrak gave him too much slack.

Hatrak denies all of the above, and said Scott focused on the boxing and Bob focused on regulating the prison.

“No, there was no jealousy,” Hatrak explained. “In fact, I didn’t detect any jealousy. He was a unifying force; he had a number of men in the [boxing] school who really looked up to him, and you know just not too long ago, Tris, I heard from two men who were in the fight school at the time – they’re still alive, we reminisced quite a bit and they were very, very flattering. They said things were not the same after I had left. It seems that things had been taken apart, for whatever reason.”

But did Scott live a good life back then, in prison on serious charges?

“Yeah, he really did,” Hatrak said. “He mostly kept out of other people’s way; the officers, even with his celebrity, didn’t give him a bad time; the inmates didn’t give him a bad time, so he had a good existence… Not a good existence, but as good as you can have behind the walls of prison. He was left alone.”

After some of his big wins, and some of the big prison events, Hatrak rewarded Scott for his efforts. 

“He was able to eat a special diet, and then after every fight I would have the kitchen prepare a big steak for him, and after he got showered and whatnot, he’d go down to the dining room and enjoy his steak dinner,” Hatrak recalled. 

Hatrak himself earned a lot of column inches. There were plenty within the penal system who were envious of his positive publicity. Hatrak had developed many initiatives to help rehabilitate prisoners and bridge the gap back into society with programs, including music, and his Scared Straight initiative – working to get those with life sentences back on track – also earned national headlines. But it all came at a price. Hatrak’s head was nearing the chopping block, even though he had never courted celebrity himself.

“You know, I really wasn’t,” he said. “I shun publicity. I try to stay away from people, and newspaper people, and I always put the guys out front, like ‘Scotty’, or my lifers or the Scared Straight people, because it was really their show and they’re the ones who deserve to be exposed to the world. So I wasn’t much of a celebrity because I didn’t seek publicity.”

Scott had a rep, too. He had been in trouble and plenty of it. But Hatrak said he never got to see the side of Scott that was painted so colorfully by the press of the day.

Asked simply whether he thought Scott was a “good guy”, Hatrak happily replies: “Yeah as far as I was concerned, he was really a good guy. I think when he came back from Florida he went into the Vroom Building [a kind of prison treatment center] because of the massive fight that the two Muslim factions had. ‘Scotty’ was one of the two factions so he spent some time in a Vroom building and I got him out of there to start the school for me, but he wasn’t a minute’s worth of trouble. He was really good to work with; he did everything that I asked and I did everything he asked.” 

Then boxing politics, as much as any other kind, got in the way. Having beaten Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and top contender Yaqui Lopez, the WBA took away his ranking, claiming they had not known Scott had been boxing in prison. Those invested in the story were heartbroken, but they didn’t give up. Hatrak’s ambition was to get Scott to fight for a world title on a day release, and to bring the title back to Rahway. As unlikely as it sounds, it really could have happened. 

It was certainly a dream of Hatrak’s.

Ahh, you know, Tris, that is the biggest regret that I have,” he lamented over the phone. “I was within weeks of having a title fight for James. I had sent The Escorts out, a singing group of maximum-security inmates, when I first got there to Newark Symphony Hall, to do a live concert. I sent them out on what was called an escorted furlough. I had an escorted furlough; all the paperwork was already done for James to go out whenever. Bob Arum could schedule a title fight with Mike Rossman, and what happened, I think my boss caught wind of that and he was very concerned about the publicity that I had received from Scared Straight, and he was absolutely frightened to death I guess – about the amount of publicity that a championship fight would bring, and so he moved me out. I never got a chance to make that happen, in a way I kind of feel like I let ‘Scotty’ down because I wanted him to fight for the title; I wanted him to win the fight, and I wanted him to go home.”

WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad said he had no intention of defending his title against the convict or in prison; others said they would only do it for the highest of prices.

That promoter Murad Muhammad had exclusive rights to promote in Rahway did not sit well with everyone in boxing. It was all getting very messy, in and out of boxing, and before this incredible, unique and, frankly, unrepeatable story could go any further, Hatrak was moved to another facility and Scott’s greatest advocate had gone.

It changed so much. They had around 10 fights together in Rahway, and it shifted the landscape for Scott afterwards. When we spoke two decades on, Scott sounded like he lost the fondness of fighting around that point and he felt he was being used by the system rather than working with it.    

“Yeah, you know what, I think it was a cold-blooded set up,” Hatrak continued. “I think they got rid of me first, and not long afterwards they sent James to Trenton [State Prison], and that did the entire boxing program in. So they first got rid of me – they wanted to get rid of the boxing program, for whatever reason. They got rid of me, then not long after that they got rid of James, then once James was gone that was it, there was nothing left. It fell apart.”

In between Hatrak leaving and the boxing program being dispensed with, Scott lost twice, to Jerry “The Bull” Martin and Dwight Qawi, who Scott knew all too well from their sparring sessions in Rahway. In the build-up to their bout, Qawi – then Dwight Braxton – actually claimed Scott owed him a few hundred bucks from sparring.  

Either way, Braxton claimed the payment in full, and after he left Rahway behind in September 1981 two things happened. Future Hall of Famer Braxton never returned to prison, and James Scott never fought again.

By the time of the Braxton fight, Hatrak was working in Portland, Oregon, but he watched the bout.

“I remember sitting in a bar in Portland, watching the Scott-Braxton fight – James was not James, he was a disheartened fella,” Hatrak added. “I don’t know what happened to him, but he just really was not James.”

And Bob was powerless to help or help pick up the pieces. 

In fact, he and James never spoke again after he left Rahway. After Scott was released more than a quarter of a century later, Hatrak lived on the other side of the country and not in the past.

Scott tried to build a normal life for himself, living initially in a halfway house and helping train kids at Goss and Goss Boxing in Trenton, but he then suffered with dementia and had to go into care.

Hatrak, with hindsight, wishes that he had reached out to Scott.

“Yep, you know what, that was my fault,” Hatrak said softly, laced with regret. “When I was taken out of Rahway Prison, anybody who was close to me, officers and whatnot, got hell from the people that replaced me. They really were given a bad time, and the last thing that I wanted to do was to bring that kind of pressure on James. Because, had I reached out, they would have given him one hell of a bad time. And still I think I made a mistake; I should’ve reached out for him.”

What about after Scott was released?

“Yep, absolutely,” Hatrak signed once more. “I just wish that I had made that happen, but like I said, I didn’t want to bring any heat on James because people that were close to me caught hell.” 

Hatrak has, since Scott’s passing, been in touch with Scott’s sister Lori, a wonderful authority on her brother’s life and times, and Hatrak has written a book, Not On My Watch, about his time in correctional facilities and working in reform. 

The memories of Rahway are sweet and sour, but the good times were the very best for Hatrak. He has co-written the book with his wife, Joan, and asked how frequently he drifts back down memory lane to think about his time moving the needle in boxing he laughs at the question.

“You know, if you were to ask Joan that question, she would say, ‘Too much and all the time’,” he said. 

“I’ve been living in the ‘70s for quite a while. It was hard for me to come to grips with the kinds of things that happened on my way out of the door. One of the things that happened when I left, I had 75 guys working hard for a year, training for a tournament at another prison; I was going to take them out to that prison and have them enter that tournament. Well, when I left, the new administration wouldn’t take them. Their excuse was that they didn’t have the money to hire correctional officers to escort them. Well had I been there; I would’ve had 50 volunteer officers willing to take them, so 75 kids who busted their homes(?) for a year to get ready for that tournament were just left flat.”

The book boasts three chapters about Scott and the boxing program, but the story is mentioned in many more, and Hatrak contends that the boxing school program was, in many ways, the pride and joy of a long, decorated career. 

“The best thing that I was able to accomplish there is, among 1,300 inmates, to have a situation where there was mutual respect on both sides; between prisoners and correctional officers. Mutual respect was rampant.” 

While Hatrak’s overall ending post-Rahway has been a happy one, the circumstances of his departure were far from that.

“Absolutely, they abandoned everything that they could of mine,” Hatrak said. “Except Scared Straight, because that went all over the world.”

Hatrak’s boxing program was a success. It encouraged peace and respect, and it gave him an important bargaining chip in that no one wanted to lose the program or the benefits from it – whether it was the events, the training, the publicity or anything else.

“Because without that kind of peace, a boxing school or Scared Straight, none of that would have been possible,” he said. 

It is amazing any of it was possible, on reflection. But it happened, and now Hatrak’s story has been immortalized in a book. 

“Oh, Joan [Hatrak] and I are both very proud,” Bob said of the final version. “You know it was really doing quite well on Saturday, on Amazon’s new releases, for penology we were number one until John Grisham knocked us off to third! And then yesterday we were up to number one and two in boxing.”

Until now, Hatrak’s is one of the best stories in the sport that had not been told.

Not On My Watch: A Beloved Prison Warden's 30-Year Fight For Justice In The Prison System: https://www.amazon.com/Not-My-Watch-Beloved-Wardens-ebook/dp/B0CW2WVM9X