Much to learn about Adirondack prisons
In a notable new book, “A Prison in the Woods,” Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. seeks to analyze connections between penal systems and environmental issues as related to the Adirondacks. It’s a topic I’d never thought about before. Apparently not many others have, either, as the author claims his work is the first on the topic.
In one sense, incarceration in the Adirondacks isn’t a new phenomenon. A state prison opened in Dannemora during the 1840s. The first warden, Ransom Cook, espoused reform values, and his leadership earned respect from both guards and inmates. But his position was a patronage job. All it took was a switch in party at top state levels to have him and his staff replaced. Not surprisingly, problems soon ensued.
However, the more recent drive for incarceration in the North Country began during an era of prison crowding in the 1970s. Multiple prisons were opened in New York state during subsequent decades, including several in the Adirondacks.
Although his chosen focus may be environmental impact, what struck me more was the economic basis for prison siting and the political aspects of efforts by the Department of Corrections to meet its needs. Previously existing physical structures often became utilized, and communities needing economic stimulus were prioritized. Thus, many villages were happy at the prospect of a new prison coming.
From early times, there was an interest in making prisons self-supporting, or even profitable. That’s why Clinton Prison was sited near iron mines in Dannemora. Later, in-house industries and leasing of inmate labor were crucial to prison management.
No one would ever expect such a facility to earn its keep now. However, availability of inexpensive prisoner work has been a significant incentive to communities ambivalent about having a prison in its midst. And this leads to one set of major environmental impacts that Hall cites. He claims that without such labor, many hiking trails, ski areas and local infrastructure projects would not have been completed.
Naturally there are environmental implications to building anything as large as a state prison. Look at the depth and breadth of such issues that attend even a proposal for a new Walmart. The author asserts that for many years, prison building was allowed to proceed without the requisite attention to impact on wetlands, plant and animal habitat, and other variables.
Hall looks in detail at five locations that have hosted, or sought to host, prisons: Dannemora, Ray Brook, Gabriels, Lyon Mountain and Tupper Lake. He clearly shows parallels between the various decisions, but he also explains the uniqueness of each situation.
By the end of this late-20th-century expansion era, siting a prison within the Blue Line became more difficult. Hall notes the association with rise in environmental consciousness generally, and the growing lobbying strength of many environmental organizations regionally.
Ironically, now prison occupancy has lessened. Back in the 1980s, Department of Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin reassured those concerned about jobs, “We have never had to close a prison.” We’ve certainly learned that’s no longer the case. There are areas in the state, among them several in the Adirondacks, that now must ponder the environmental and economic impacts of having abandoned or unused penal facilities.
I’m not going to suggest that this book is an easy read. But it’s an important one. Although I can’t say I agree with the writer on every aspect, I’ve felt challenged by the issues, and I’ve learned a lot. Books that can have that impact on their readers are well worth the effort taken to read them.