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Youth incarceration comes to the North Country

New York state is spending over $50 million to repurpose two prisons in the North Country so they can incarcerate just over 250 teenagers in these specially designed ‘youth’ prisons. The recent passage of the state’s law to raise the age of criminal responsibility for some teenagers created a provision for the Department of Corrections and Community Services to create ‘youth friendly’ prisons which are informed by developmentally-appropriate services and interventions. While the passage of the law to raise the age of criminal responsibility was an important step forward, and the construction of these facilities represents a clear acknowledgement that teenagers are inherently different than adults, the impact that the passage of this law has on the North Country should be interrogated. I will be speaking on April 8 in Lake Placid about my book on some of the historic and contemporary issues of juvenile imprisonment in the state.

I’ve come to know the Adirondacks well over the last few years, although my roots extend further back (my uncle, Peter Cox, was the editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in the early 1960s). Prisons first brought me to the North Country, but the region’s natural beauty, the richness of the landscape, its history, and its people, led me to stay. But it is prison, unfortunately, that brings me back once again. I first came to the region to work on the case of a man who was convicted of killing his brother, in order to beg for leniency in his sentence. My client’s story was a true North Country one — a man whose life declined as the dairy economy of the region did. His fate would be prison, not unlike many of the people he grew up with, although they held the keys, and he would be behind the gate. As the dairy economy dried out, some of his friends turned to prison jobs as salvation. My client, in his seventies, has ultimately been sentenced to die in prison, and the last time I saw him was at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, where he told me about the days he spent inside of his cell, playing Sudoku, and protecting himself against the harsh conditions around him.

I’m returning to the North Country to witness history coming back to haunt us. I’m coming to speak about my research about the negative consequences of juvenile imprisonment at the doorstep of two proposed juvenile prisons–the Adirondack Correctional Facility and the Groveland Annex. When I first came to stay with friends at their house in the region, I was drawn to the stories of the sleeping porches attached to their bedrooms, from the era where ‘fresh air’ was said to cure the ills of city life. While wealthy individuals found their respite in the fresh air of the sleeping porches, the poor were condemned to places like the Ray Brook Sanatorium, which opened its doors in 1904. As sanatoriums went out of favor, the facility was converted in the 1970s into one for women who suffered from drug addiction; but, along with the changing tides of opinion about the effectiveness of rehabilitation, the center closed its doors, and the facility was repurposed as “Camp Adirondack,” a facility workhouse for criminally convicted men who were engaged in the logging industries as part of their punishment. In 1981, a key moment in the development of mass incarceration, the facility was turned into a prison — the Adirondack Correctional Facility. Mario Cuomo led the charge in the buildup of prisons, especially across the North Country; his son, Andrew has pushed a substantial prison downsizing process, much to the resistance of people whose jobs depend on those facilities.

It is this context which is crucial in understanding the repurposing of Adirondack Correctional facility from an adult male facility to one for young people. While some might suggest that the era of mass incarceration is on the decline, others have argued that when we reframe prisons as sites of care and change (in this case, as specialized institutions for young people), are there ways that we neglect to provide sufficient oversight and monitoring of places that we think are ostensibly better for children, even though they are still prisons?

Reform is often motivated by the desire to meet competing demands from sometimes-competing entities, which emerges in particular in rural areas, which have come to rely on large scale institutions for employment. Governor Cuomo has come under fire by some for closing and downsizing many of the state’s prisons and juvenile facilities, and has been celebrated by others for leading the charge in the project of decarceration. A form of political compromise has arguably come in the form of building specialized prisons for young people in the North Country, a region which almost never sends teenagers to prison — in 2016, the twelve counties in the North Country region sent a total of twenty-two 16 and 17-year-olds to adult prison. The Adirondack Correctional facility in Essex County is slated to have 142 beds and $23 million dollars in updates; the Groveland Annex, in Livingston County, which will also be repurposed, will have 110 new beds at the cost of $25 million dollars.

Cuomo didn’t reopen any closed facilities, but he has guaranteed jobs to North Country residents by repurposing an existing facility and creating more jobs. According to the Press Republican, Franklin County manager Donna Kissane said that in spite of no old facilities re-opening, “the decision is still a win for Franklin County because having such a facility close by saves the county in transportation costs and, more importantly, retains a number of jobs in the North Country.” Yet, we must ask, who loses?

In reforms like these, the people who lose are arguably all of the individuals who pass through the system, from young people to the adults who are charged with caring for them. Prisons do damage to all people who enter them. They stultify growth and development for those who are incarcerated and the staff. They prevent communities from growing by isolating employment and wealth in a single industry almost exclusively dependent on inmate labor to operate. And they prevent communities from a more diverse range of resources, like community colleges, which play a greater role in growth and development for both the people within them and the communities themselves.

I researched the lives of teenagers and staff working in juvenile facilities and prisons across New York state, and what I witnessed were the ways that the history of New York’s projects of institutionalization, from juvenile reformatories, to sanatoriums, to prisons, haunt our attempts to reform our way out of a problem which is fundamentally one that continues to see these closed institutions as a salve for social problems that seem beyond our reach. And yet, those in the North Country know that simple solutions, from the Olympics, to solar technology initiatives,and even to drug treatment programs, do not sufficiently nourish and address the deeper dynamics of rural poverty.

Dr. Alexandra Cox is a lecturer for the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. She’s the author of “Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People,” published by Rutgers University.

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