Welcome to Siberia
In 1975 there were two state prisons in the North Country. Today there are eighteen. Here, a historical and economic look at the impact of Adirondack incarceration.
by Anne Mackinnon
FOR DECADES UNTOLD the vast north yard of Clinton Correctional Facility, in Dannemora, has been covered with what appears to be a shantytown full of handmade wooden fences and furniture, cookstoves, paths and gardens. In fact the dozens of small plots, known as “courts,” are places where groups of inmates are allowed a measure of freedom to plant flowers or vegetables, sculpt the stony earth into terraces, and even cook beans and rice or pasta purchased at the commissary.
From those courts the incarcerated men can look out across the sloping grounds of the prison, over the roofs and guard towers of the vast south wall and beyond to the Adirondack High Peaks. Most prisoners have never been to the mountains and have no desire to go. “About seventy percent of our inmates come from New York City,” reports superintendent Daniel Senkowski, “and most are serving very lengthy sentences.”
Most of Clinton’s inmates will end up being transferred to less-secure facilities closer to their homes in the southern part of the state before being released. For the majority, then, the experience of the Adirondacks is confined to planting seeds in the soil, a view of the mountains and conversations with officers they see every day.
Prisons are a fact of life in the region, as controversial perhaps as the Adirondack Park Agency itself and with no less impact on the long-term financial health of the area. They are the physical manifestation of the North Country’s most significant growth enterprise, the quintessential light industry that dozens of depressed townships in or near the Adirondack Park have long sought. And they are sought, adamantly: Adirondackers roll out the red carpet for institutions that would inspire people in other parts of the state to lie down in front of bulldozers.
From one perspective, prisons and the Adirondacks are perfectly matched partners in a state that encompasses both hard-core urban centers and serious wilderness. If properly planned, the environmental impact of a prison today is largely that of additional, but temporary, population. Inmates are packed in and, with reasonable luck, packed out again, leaving millions of dollars in salaries and pensions behind.
In town after town prisons are mammoth recycling opportunities, lucrative tenants for buildings left abandoned by schools, factories, hospitals, even the Olympics. The fear of loss that taints the optimism of prospective Adirondack investors simply does not apply to the state of New York—at least not when it comes to prisons. As long as New York’s cities continue to generate convicts, and as long as the North Country continues to produce underemployment, the symbiotic bond between these two divergent regions seems likely to hold.
If prisons tread lightly on Adirondack ground these days, it is partly because the region itself has changed—or rather our assumptions about how money can be made have shifted. Up here prisons are about money and little more. Society’s true motivations in building and maintaining these institutions—punishing criminals, upholding justice, rehabilitating wrongdoers, maintaining order, whatever—derive almost entirely from the needs of an urban culture that might as well be on another planet. Today, as throughout the history of corrections in New York State, the Adirondacks is oddly on the receiving end, trying to make the most of a coincidental relationship with parts of the state that wield greater political and financial power.
CLINTON CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, the granddaddy of North County prisons and the defining feature of the town of Dannemora, was built as an iron-mining operation in the 1840s, at a time when the wealthier citizens of northern New York were struggling to put the region on the industrial map and perhaps even turn it into a civilized place. The prison helped achieve the first of those goals, but eventually—after exploiting inmates’ labor, burning thousands of acres for charcoal and tapping into the resources of the state to improve transportation—iron production at Clinton died out, as it did in the rest of the North Country.
Later the prison played a small but significant role in the local tourist industry by enhancing the region’s image as an untamed and remote place. Local residents took a perverse pride in Clinton’s reputation for toughness, its status as home to one of the state’s three electric chairs, and its imposing wall, which has historically stood alongside the mountains themselves as a symbol of intractability. Similarly, the prisons built in recent years symbolize one of the most important characteristics of the Adirondacks today—ambivalence about the region’s relationship with the rest of the state and a desire to derive some profit from an uneasy alliance.
WHEN THE STATE government finally settled its budget in August 1997, upstate newspapers and public officials greeted the inclusion of a new maximum-security prison for Tupper Lake with sunny jubilation. Scratch the surface of local views, however, and you quickly encounter an ambivalence that comes in many shades of gray. “Prisons—my favorite blight on the Adirondacks,” muses Woody Cole, former park agency chairman and an architect of the deal that allowed the 1980 Olympic village (now the federal correctional facility at Ray Brook) to be constructed on state land. That project, many think, kick-started the regional prison-building boom that extended from the St. Lawrence River to the Mohawk Valley.
Steve Englehart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, a historic-preservation group, concedes that prisons have had a good effect on the regional economy but contends that “some towns are better suited to prisons than others.” Keeseville, where he lives, is not so well suited in his estimation, mainly because it has other types of employment to offer. “It’s important,” he says, “that local people get involved in deciding how these institutions fit in with the rest of their towns—and that is starting to happen.”
Even in towns without good job options, some residents question the value of correctional facilities or, where they already exist, worry about possible expansions. “Yes, we need the jobs,” admits one town official who wished to remain nameless, “but fundamentally a prison is not a healthy thing to have in your community.”
“It’s a question of imagination,” says a longtime Franklin County observer. “There’s a dearth of entrepreneurial outlook among our local leaders. They go for prisons because they can’t imagine anything else.” The general skepticism extends even to people who depend on prisons for a living: Last spring, with the state budget and the promise of prison construction hanging in the balance, Andy Guynup, local president of the New York State Law Enforcement Officers Union (Council 82, AFSCME) at Clinton Correctional Facility, told a reporter from the Village Voice that, if it weren’t for his generous benefits, the state could “take this job and shove it.”
Prison work is stressful, often boring, and occasionally dangerous and difficult. The grind takes its toll on workers, their families and the communities in which they live. It’s not uncommon for women married to COs—correction officers are still a predominantly male work force—to refer obliquely to the anger and tension their husbands bring home every day, anger that may find an outlet in alcohol, drugs or domestic violence.
Teachers say that children of correction officers are frequently more keyed up, more obsessed with rules and punishments, more focused on categorizing “good” people and “bad” people, than their classmates. Local contractors complain about being undercut for jobs by prison employees who work on the side but don’t need to cover their own health insurance or benefits. And anyone who thinks that “road rage” is an urban phenomenon should try driving fifty-five on Route 3 toward Dannemora just before a shift change.
The officers themselves are highly susceptible to stress-related illness and suicide. COs can usually list several coworkers who have been killed in their forties by heart attacks. Most are familiar with the statistic that correction workers take their own lives at more than three times the rate of the general population.
Although college courses for inmates are now a thing of the past, officers complained volubly for years about the injustice of a system that allowed criminals to get no-cost degrees while they—taxpayers who had committed no crime—were not offered the same opportunities. Asked if they want their children to work in prisons as adults, they tend to reply in the negative, with answers ranging from “not really” to “over my dead body.” Many can tell you to the day how long they have to work before retirement.
THERE ARE NOW eighteen state correctional institutions in the North Country. In 1975 there were two: Clinton and Comstock’s Great Meadow, both of them large maximum-security facilities that fit the public stereotype of what a prison is all about. Adirondack and Mount McGregor—both medium-security installations and former tuberculosis hospitals—opened in 1976, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Governor Mario Cuomo reacted to the crack epidemic (and sheltered his opposition to the death penalty) behind a crime policy of long sentences and more prison beds, that the real boom occurred. To meet the demand the state opened dozens of smaller institutions, many of them scattered throughout Adirondack towns and providing a range of regimes and security ratings. The shock-incarceration facility in Moriah, for example, is a boot camp for young offenders doing short sentences, while Camp Gabriels, near Paul Smiths, is a forestry-work facility for low-risk inmates who are within two years of parole.
Every two weeks New York State issues paychecks totaling approximately forty-six million dollars for the civilian and security personnel who staff its seventy correctional facilities statewide. Close to twelve million dollars of that amount—more than three hundred million each year—flows directly into the Adirondack region through salaries to the approximately seventy-six hundred workers at the eighteen northernmost institutions. (Of those figures, about fifty-three hundred people are employed in security, most as frontline corrections officers, with the remainder in clerical, health-care, teaching, food-service and maintenance positions.) A great deal more income comes into the area through the salaries of COs newer to the system, who often spend several years working downstate and coming home on weekends before being assigned to institutions closer to their families. Pensions and other benefits paid to current and retired workers push the sum even higher, especially in towns like Dannemora.
The average annual salary of a New York State correction officer is thirty-six thousand dollars, big money for the Adirondacks, especially for a job that doesn’t require a college degree. In fact most local COs earn more than that, since the region tends to attract officers with more experience. (By contrast, the average New York City schoolteacher makes about forty-two thousand dollars in a profession that essentially requires a master’s degree.) The job comes with a hefty package of benefits, most notably a provision that allows for retirement at half salary, typically including health coverage, after twenty-five years’ serrvice. Overtime is available at most facilities, and there is considerable informal flexibility in scheduling days off: by swapping shifts with coworkers all summer, some guys bank enough days to take several weeks off during hunting season. Many officers run part-time businesses on the side, often with the goal of operating them full-time after retirement.
As important as its actual monetary value is the stability that comes with a prison paycheck. Asked about the spate of new homes being built by correction officers, Guynup explains that the trend is fueled most of all by union members’ ability to qualify for long-term mortgages. “They can plan ahead for twenty or thirty years,” he says, “because they know, unless they really screw up, they’re going to be bringing in that salary.”
Terrance Gilroy, historian for the Town of Dannemora and a former Clinton CO, recalls that car dealers moved into the town during the Depression specifically to attract the business of prison guards—in those days about the only people with incomes steady enough to commit themselves to car payments. Pointing to a house across the street from his, Gilroy makes a related point: “The guy over there was an officer too. I could have told you within fifteen dollars what he brought home every week. We were all doing about the same, and so we had to keep up. Families would say, ‘If they can afford a car, so can we. They have new wallpaper, so we want it too.'”
For many officers such stability represents a radical change from the economic expectations they grew up with. Guynup worked after high school in his family’s sawmill and logging business before turning to corrections. Some years, he says, the cash was better at the sawmill, but the insecurity of the income, the lack of benefits in case of accident or illness— the problems, in short, associated with running a dangerous small business in a region with a dicey economy—sent him to work in the state’s prison system, a thing he’d once sworn he’d never do. “I said it would be the last job I’d ever take,” he laughs, “and I guess it’s going to be.”
Guynup’s story is not at all unusual. The boom in prison openings in the 1980s scooped up hundreds of men and women, many of whom had graduated from high school and taken jobs, sometimes in family businesses, as loggers, truck drivers, plumbers, builders and so on. Others left the area to work, then came back to settle down, finding their way into a corrections system hungry in those days for applicants with high-school degrees and clean criminal records. Most were able to find work in institutions near their hometowns within a matter of months, a situation that no longer applies.
Although new officers continue to pour into the system from the state’s northernmost counties, there simply aren’t enough positions nearby to accommodate them. Senkowski, superintendent at Clinton since 1988, says that correction officers today typically work in the system for six to seven years before earning enough seniority to be assigned to his institution, the largest in the state, with a security staff of approximately nine hundred officers. And so for the hundreds of COs doing time at Sing Sing, Fishkill and other downstate facilities while they wait for an Adirondack assignment, the state’s decision to build a new prison in Franklin County is good news indeed.
OVER THE PAST few years the union has fought hard for that new prison, just as an earlier generation of trade unionists fought for the building of Clinton in the 1840s. Then, as today, employment was never far from the heart of decisions about where to locate New York State prisons—although the workers in question were prisoners, not the men who watched over them.
In 1796, when the state decided to incarcerate felons rather than flog them, its first institution, Newgate, was built in Greenwich Village, just beyond the settled portion of New York City. The very idea of incarceration drew intense criticism from those who considered it unfair that criminals should
be housed at taxpayer expense—flogging, after all, had been cheap—to which penal reformers responded with a plan to make the jail self-supporting through inmate labor. Over the next few decades Newgate’s workshops turned out shoes and boots, nails, barrels, woodenware and linen cloth, but never managed to break even for more than a few months at a time.
Auburn Prison—the oldest New York State institution in use today— was authorized in 1817 as part of a package of legislation meant to cope with a rise in crime after the War of 1812 and the westward expansion that accompanied the building of the Erie Canal. The state purchased a parcel of land along Owasco Inlet from a group of three landowners, one of whom happened to be the assemblyman who shepherded the act through the legislature. The site for Sing Sing, which replaced Newgate in 1828, was chosen for its rich marble deposits and the ease of transporting prisoners up the Hudson River. (Its beautiful white stone, quarried under onerous conditions by inmates, was used in the building of New York City’s prominent Grace Church and New York University.)
Also included in the 1817 legislation was a plan to replace prison workshops with a contract system, under which private entrepreneurs could effectively operate factories within prison walls using inmates as workers. This was intended to shift the burdens and risks of providing materials and selling prison-made products while yielding profits for both investors and government. Not surprisingly, the contractors were initially no more successful at making money than the workshops had been: in 1818 Newgate’s contracts produced sixteen thousand dollars in income, while the cost of running the prison ran to fifty-eight thousand.
Some of the factories eventually became profitable, but the contractual relationships embroiled the state in an endless mire of lawsuits and conflicts with wealthy influential people who cared little about the challenges of running a prison. The contract system became a political liability as accusations of corruption were exchanged.
An even more potent force was the growing movement among the state’s craftsmen and artisans—known collectively as “mechanics”—against the factory system in general and prison manufacturing in particular. As early as 1801 the state passed a law requiring that shoes made at Newgate bear the stamp “Prison Made,” a stigma that independent shoemakers hoped would imply inferior quality. By the late 1830s organized mechanics were effectively demanding restrictive legislation, intended not only to hinder prison industries but to protect the apprenticeship system and prevent former inmates from working in skilled trades after release. Various laws banned prisoners from learning a new trade in prison, learning a complete manufacturing process (such as shoemaking), or making items manufactured elsewhere in the United States. Early labor unions made pacts never to hire anyone who had been incarcerated.
When it became clear in the early 1840s that the state needed another prison, the pressure from mechanics was enormous: choose a site far from population centers, where its industries would be less threatening to independent workers. Governor William Sew-ard, a liberal-leaning Whig who later served as secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln, had received a letter from a resident of Keeseville suggesting that convict labor might be used to mine iron. The state followed up on that proposal by commissioning Ransom Cook, a furniture maker and inventor from Saratoga County, to investigate the availability of ore—and the feasibility of establishing a prison to mine it—in the northern part of the state. Soon after his appointment was made public Cook received a counterproposal from Henry Averill, the owner of a forge near Cadyville, in Clinton County.
Cook submitted a report in 1843, advising the legislature that mining could certainly be carried out by inmates and recommending a site near that mentioned by Averill, in the struggling settlement of Dannemora. During a discussion of Cook’s report, members of the assembly praised the plan for its promise to exile inmates “as effectually as if they were transported to Russia or Sweden.” A bill to establish the prison was passed in March 1844, inspiring a rally of workers in New York City, where forty-five hundred signatures were gathered on a petition to the state senate urging immediate action. An appropriation of a hundred thousand dollars followed in May, including an initial allocation of thirty thousand.
Money in hand, Cook set off to negotiate his purchase. He soon bought what he took to be a promising mine from General St. John Skinner, reportedly the man who named Dannemora in honor of a mining region in Sweden. Cook was ready to build by the following winter. Using local labor and twelve-foot logs (and with five feet of snow on the ground), he supervised the stockading of twelve acres of land, a task completed in time to receive ninety convicts from Sing Sing and Auburn in the spring of 1845. During the following year,, those men constructed their own prison, including housing for themselves, storehouses, clerk’s and physician’s offices, a lime-house, machine and carpentry shops, a foundry, homes for the clerk and agent, a sawmill and the mine itself, located within the prison walls.
The 1840s and 1850s were lean years for the iron industry, and the prison’s mining operation got off to a slow start. Cook was officially appointed warden in 1845 and was reputedly a humane and innovative supervisor. Along with opening the mine, he established a lending library, encouraged the chaplain to teach illiterate men to read and treated the prisoners well, allowing them such luxuries as tobacco. Yet in 1848, after the election of a new governor, Cook was accused of moving too slowly in establishing iron manufacturing and removed from his post.
His successor immediately sought advice from the manager of the Peru Iron Works, in Clintonville, on the cost of erecting a sufficient number of forge fires, gas furnaces and a rolling mill to employ a hundred and fifty convicts, but apparently lacked the funds to take action. In 1852 the ore ran out in the stockaded mine, and the state gave serious consideration to closing the prison. Instead, the state leased a nearby mine on Lyon Mountain from Henry Averill. The ore raised by Clinton’s prisoners continued to be sold to forges in Cadyville and Saranac, but it was not until a contract was negotiated with owners of a nearby horse-nail company that forging and manufacturing began in the prison.
In 1853 E. and J. D. Kingsland and Company of Keeseville contracted to build extensive ironworks for the state at Clinton Prison, including the present forge, rolling mill, nail factory and an immense blast furnace. The furnace, which must have cost nearly a hundred thousand dollars, was soon after destroyed by fire. After the works were completed, the Kingslands ran them for a number of years under the contract system, and it proved a disastrous venture. According to an account published in 1880, in Duane Hurd’s History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, “They were lavish in their expenditure and probably advanced two hundred thousand dollars to the state in the construction of the works.” They never got their money back.
Stung by his loss, Jacob Kingsland launched a spectacular lawsuit against the state. As in similar suits of the era, the fundamental argument was that running the prison interfered with making a profit. The firm was eventually awarded a settlement of fifty-nine thousand dollars, so large that the governor made headlines across the state by refusing to pay.
In 1862 Kingsland sold the works to Andrew Williams, a Saranac forge owner and later one of the principals of the Chateaugay Iron Company. Williams managed to twist the argument that prison contractors had a right to make a profit, seeking to show instead that making a profit was impossible. In 1866—once he succeeded in establishing that point—the state relieved him of his burden by purchasing his forty-four nail machines, and he walked away with the proceeds.
THE KINGSLAND STORY is a cautionary tale, a warning of the danger of confounding the public good with the quest for profit. In the scramble to make money, local iron entrepreneurs viewed the prison quite simply as a manipulable resource, put within their reach by a state that shared their interests. The prison administrators had no choice but to accommodate their needs, to the detriment of inmates and often in ways that compromised the health and security of local people. Feeding the forges required that inmates travel outside the walls to the mines, where they worked in hideous conditions and had ample opportunity to escape.
From 1866 to 1878 the state operated the ironworks at Clinton, glumly accepting losses and attempting occasionally to improve conditions for employees and inmates. An annual report from 1869 by newly appointed warden
William Rhodes showed clearly the difficulty of maintaining the institution’s two contradictory missions: to administer a decently run prison and to operate a vast industrial complex. Listing special expenditures during the year, Rhodes indicated five hundred dollars for new pickets for the perimeter fence and three hundred for the prison library, compared with three thousand for new charcoal kilns and seventy-five hundred dollars to build a plank road. The manufacturing department lost approximately ten thousand dollars that year.
The county’s elite citizens benefited greatly from the state’s struggle to make the prison pay. For example, the prison’s fifteen-mile plank road was built entirely at state expense, but, unlike a comparable county road, charged no tolls, a boon to companies that transported heavy goods across the Adirondack wilderness.
Politics played an important role here. In 1878, for example—the year the prison’s iron operation was shut down for good—the state committed itself to building a sixteen-mile rail link over the steep grade between the prison and the main Delaware & Hudson line at Plattsburgh. After the state was finished the Chateaugay Ore Company simply leased the line and extended it beyond the prison to its own ore bed. It surely did not hurt the company’s interests that its two owners, Smith Weed and Andrew Williams, were at the same time serving as members of the state assembly and the United States Congress, respectively. The firm capitalized further by buying large tracts of prison land at bargain prices after the iron operation closed.
Politics and dollars also interacted in the fortunes of local residents, as described in a section on Clinton Prison in the Northern Tourist, an 1879 travel guide to the marvels of the northeast United States: “Many of the heads of families in [Dannemora] are ex-keepers and ex-guards of the six hundred convicts. When the opposition political party next goes in, these ex-keepers and ex-guards will go in with it, and the present guards and keepers will come out. They will linger about for a few years, until their party is reinstated again, when they will once more take their turns in the lookouts and dormitories. Many of the inhabitants are wood-choppers to the prison; many are general teamsters to the prison; many more are general messengers and carriers to the prison, and many live upon the prison in a strange and incomprehensible way; but, were they to be separated from the prison, they would pine and fall into decay, like uprooted fungi.”
Dannemora residents may have subsisted through their association with the prison, but they did not thrive. Records from 1880 hint at a bleak reality: a majority of houses in the town were made of logs, a sign of poverty that set Dannemora apart from every other town in Clinton County. The condition of the land is also telling: in 1880, Dannemora consisted of 1,784 acres of improved agricultural land, 4,161 acres of unimproved woodland and 30,739 acres of other unimproved land—the last figure a sign of the devastation wrought by charcoal production. In contrast, Black Brook, another relatively poor iron-producing town, had 8,584 acres of farmland, 15,663 acres of woodland and only 15,973 acres of other unimproved land. It is also interesting to note that, although every other town in the county had roughly equal numbers of male and female residents, men outnumbered women in Dannemora by two to one. In the years after the iron operation shut down, Clinton expanded contracts in other areas, such as weaving, tinsmithing, basket- and broom making, and, improbably, the manufacturing of ladies’ fine felt hats. Today’s primary industry—sewing clothing and bedding for state institutions—got its start in 1883, and in 1894 the state codified its “state-use system,” under which prison industries could sell their goods only to other government-run institutions.
In 1880 the grand warden’s house was built. Facing Cook Street, the house put a genteel face on the institution and symbolized a turn away from its frontier image. A stone wall replaced the fortlike wooden picket fence that had previously done such a poor job of keeping prisoners inside. No longer did the gigantic “State Gun” ring out, warning people for miles around that an inmate had escaped.
Conditions inside, though, did not improve, and an odd pride developed around the prison’s miserable notoriety. From 1895 to 1913, for example, a peculiar industry arose around the execution of inmates in Dannemora’s electric chair. Town historian Terrance Gilroy recounts local lore about the carnival atmosphere that surrounded these events: Special trains ran from Plattsburgh on the day of an execution, and restaurants on Cook Street competed for business with advertised specials. One store owner auctioned the exclusive use of his telephone to visiting journalists, with the highest bidder being guaranteed the scoop.
The state also capitalized on the institution’s image by incarcerating mobsters and other tough characters at Dannemora, then making the improbable claim that their influence was neutralized in so remote a place. Yet colorful tales were poor camouflage for a dangerous situation for both inmates and employees, wrought about by the state’s neglect. After a fire destroyed the mess hall in 1890, for example, the men were forced to eat in their cells for sixteen years.
When Gilroy’s father went to work at Clinton around World War I there were still no toilets in the cellblocks, and discipline was brutal and arbitrary. Gilroy remembers weil the day during the summer of 1929 when he and his father, visiting relatives at a farm, looked up and saw a column of smoke rising from the prison. His father returned swiftly to help control the most famous and destructive riot in the history of the institution, taking care to leave his family a safe distance from the outbreak. In the aftermath of the riot a shocked legislature finally took action and ordered that Clinton be completely rebuilt as a modern correctional facility.
BEHIND ITS imposing wall Clinton continues to change in response to changing times, but the wall still signifies a division between what’s inside and the rest of the world that is increasingly uncommon, even in maximum-security facilities. “Everybody acts as if there’s a deep, dark secret there,” laughs Gilroy, “but there isn’t really.” Even so, Clinton’s inmates never leave the prison grounds on ordinary business. The gardens around Clinton are maintained by inmates who come by bus from Lyon Mountain’s minimum-security facility. No work crews tend the prison’s forty-six hundred acres of land, although the prison once had a forestry program. There are few volunteers coming into the prison these days, although superintendent Senkowski hopes that a newly hired director of volunteer services will remedy that.
The culture of Clinton contrasts sharply with that of Camp Gabriels, a minimum-security facility located in what was once the Gabriels Sanitarium of the Sisters of Mercy, near Paul Smiths. Inmates here have plenty of opportunity to experience the Adirondack outdoors, and the public benefits greatly from the work they contribute to state, local and nonprofit facilities. The jobs they do may not prepare them directly for work in places like New York City and Buffalo, but the tasks demand skill enough to warrant special training from staff at the facility and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Teamwork and stamina are definitely required.
Gabriels superintendent James Murphy has been at his job since July 1995, and in that time he has gotten to know dozens of town supervisors, highway superintendents, DEC officials, fire chiefs, clergy, events organizers and community activists from throughout the area. These are the people whose towns and organizations have come to depend on the seventeen crews of inmates Camp Gabriels deploys each day for clean-ups, grounds and trail maintenance, ditch digging, grass and brush cutting and other outdoor work. Inside the facility other crews are responsible for housekeeping and running a sawmill.
Superintendent Murphy is a true believer in the camp’s mission, but he has also been in this business for a long time and takes a measured view of its effect on inmates: “I like to think they leave here with a work ethic,” he says. “Many of them seem to feel good about themselves.” He is certain that many value the opportunity to work outside the institution every day, pointing as an example to an inmate who was badly hurt by a falling tree but asked to return to Gabriels after he recuperated.
Yet Murphy also emphasizes that inmates are very carefully selected for the institution: they must be within two years of the end of their sentences, have excellent behavior records and demonstrate a good attitude toward the work. Those convicted of arson or sex crimes or who have tried to escape from other facilities are automatically ineligible. In other words, this small facility holds only those men most likely to succeed here.
A fat file of letters testifies to the value of the inmates’ work from community perspectives. Yet the question of whether the crews are displacing paid workers is a matter of quiet debate. A few years ago Camp Gabriels crews constructed most of the trails, decks and boardwalks at the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center near Paul Smiths.
Recently, however, the state ruled against allowing the use of inmate labor to build a bridge over a bog on a state-maintained trail, saying that it would violate union agreements. Murphy says he is sometimes told that his men can work on a job if a journeyman is hired, but that the organizations requesting his help usually can’t afford the cost. Asked about his union’s view, Bob Lawson, spokesman for Council 82, says that this is a difficult issue for correction officers, who naturally like to be supportive of other unions, but are required to supervise crews under their own contracts. “Our members are local residents,” he explains, “so they like to see some of this work get done. The question is, Would it get done if the inmates didn’t do it? In a lot of cases, probably not.”
Over the next few years, though, it’s fair to assume that the consuming prison issue for the region will be the construction of the state’s first super-max facility, near Tupper Lake, scheduled to open in 1999. Although the site currently favored is off the main road, invisible to tourist and resident alike, its planned layout will certainly draw attention: 750 cells for fifteen hundred inmates, each cell with its own shower and a small enclosed outdoor space to minimize contact among inmates and between inmates and guards. Only one inmate in five will have an opportunity to work at a prison job. Otherwise locked in twenty-four hours a day, the super-max inmates will eat all their meals in their cells and have no common yard time. “It’s a safety issue,” says Lawson, whose union campaigned hard for special housing units for assaultive inmates, even using radio advertising to get their message across.
The union didn’t have to convince Ron Stafford, the conservative Republican state senator and chair of the senate finance committee, who has represented the northeastern Adirondack Park for the past thirty-two years. Stafford, undoubtedly the strongest campaigner for prisons in the region, grew up in Dannemora. His family lived next door to the facility, where his father worked as an officer, so he knows firsthand the sense of security a prison can offer.
“Tupper Lake needs this institution because of changes over the past few years in the timber industry,” he explains. “This new prison will anchor an economic turnaround that’s going to include four to five hundred new jobs, which in turn will spur real-estate sales and improve business opportunities.” And so the balance holds: Local people will come home from Sing Sing to work in the Adirondacks, where they will watch over people who are among the most troubled and dangerous products of our state’s great cities. Timber may eventually go the way of iron, but the economy will thrive.
And someday, will there be new cells and new jobs for the next generation? The momentum of Adirondack prison history says yes.
Editors’ Note: This is an article from the Adirondack Life archives and contains information that may no longer be accurate.