A gap in the history of the Adirondacks

The closed Lyon Mountain Prison sold for $ 140,000 at a 2013 auction. Phil Brown / Explorer file photo

A native of the north shines a light on the region’s relationship with prisons and their invisible work

By Holly Riddle

Clarence Jefferson “Jeff” Hall Jr. grew up outside of Plattsburgh. He knows the Adirondacks. But as Hall neared his doctoral dissertation, with the idea of ​​tracing the history of Adirondack labor and industry, he stumbled upon a somewhat neglected area of ​​regional history.

“I realized there were all these prisons,” he says. “Growing up, I had a hazy understanding of prisons and the great strength they represented in the region, but when my [graduate school] counselor told me to start researching, I didn’t even know where to start. I did not start my graduate studies with any interest in studying this subject, but it has built up over time and I have, of course, become extremely interested, as I focus my career primarily on the subject of incarceration.

Today, Hall is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Queensborough Community College / CUNY and Visiting Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His first book, “A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country,” was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in November 2020.

Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. Photo provided

Missing pieces

His book was, in part, an effort to address some of this loophole in Adirondack history.

“There is a huge yawning gap of knowledge in this area of ​​history here, at least as far as incarceration is concerned. There have been nearly two centuries of incarceration in this neighborhood.

– Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr., author of “A Prison in the Woods”.

Recently, the Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College hosted Hall for a talk on the subject, including how the Adirondack environment – both the natural environment and the social environment – has influenced and has been influenced by prisons in the region and the relation to incarceration. The conference traced, as much as it could over an hour, the history of incarceration in the Adirondacks, down to its impacts today.

northern country prison map
A 2013 map showing the location of prisons in the region. Nancy Bernstein card

Nearly two centuries of incarceration

Today, the small community of Dannemora is most memorable thanks to the big white beast of a prison that juts out to its main street (as well as the famous prison breakout in June 2015). But, in the early 1840s, this land was an uninhabited spruce forest with a single man-made structure and a large untapped iron ore reserve – until state officials decided to build it. a financially self-sustaining prison on the ground to alleviate overcrowding in its current prisons. Clinton State Prison opened in 1845, irrevocably linked to the land of the Adirondacks by its very existence.

Fast forward in history, until the 1970s, New York again experienced significant overcrowding within its prison system and, once again, considered the Adirondacks to provide the land needed for such infrastructure, as well as the remote location that would appease the wealthiest populations in the state. who did not want prisons built within their reach. Soon, the former state-run tuberculosis hospital in Raybrook was converted to a minimum security prison. Shortly after, an undeveloped property in Raybrook was converted into infrastructure that would first serve as Olympic accommodation for athletes during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and then federal prison.

But the impacts of these prisons have been felt beyond the disruption of the natural environment (although that’s reason enough for concern). The construction and maintenance of these prisons raised questions of race, as the majority of those incarcerated across the north of the country were (and are) people of color. They have had an impact on the economy of the north of the country, both for better and for worse, as prisons have brought jobs to remote Adirondack communities; however, in more recent history, prisons have been closed, leaving residents who have relied on prisons for their work, in some cases for generations, to wonder “what now?” “

Where do we go from here?

The subject of Adirondack incarceration is nuanced and deep, multifaceted and just as topical as it was when these prisons were built. As Hall is quick to point out in his lecture, even tourists are feeling the effects of the Adirondack incarceration, as some of the area’s most important attractions have been built by prison workers, from scenic roads to some of the trails. from the Whiteface ski area. So why not talk about it?

“For many of these communities, [prisons are] the only source of employment … Many people, for this basic reason for survival, do not want to talk too much about the larger implications of the prison system. If you start asking questions it can become uncomfortable and of course it could lead to what has already happened in the past 12 years. Three of the prisons have closed and probably more will likely close.

book cover prison in the woods

A prison in the woods: environment and incarceration in upstate New York

Published by University of Massachusetts Press in November 2020.

So what’s the answer? This question can be as difficult as any of Hall’s research and writing questions. When so many problems are rooted in one institution, solving them all is not a quick fix. However, there are still opportunities for local people to get involved in solving these issues that reside right outside their doors.

Hall recommends John Brown Lives !, the organization linked to Lake Placid’s John Brown Farm State Historic Site that leads initiatives addressing not only mass incarceration, but also issues such as civil rights, human rights voting and immigrant rights.

He also has his own initiative in the works, a mapping project to detail both the incarceration sites in the North Country as well as the prison work sites in the North Country (people interested in the project can join Hall at [email protected]).

“Prisons are brick and mortar institutions where people live and work, but their impacts are felt almost everywhere you go, especially here. The only thing is, most people don’t know it, but the impacts are tangible. The hiking trail you are on or the ski slope or the campsite, or even the causeway you are riding on… incarcerated people were working all over that area, ”Hall sums up.

“It would be nice if people understood that we are all invested in this system in the North Country whether you work there or not, whether you have a family member there or not, whether you are incarcerated there or not. We are all invested in one way or another. Understanding that we are connected to the system helps to develop more empathy for the people in prison and also for the people who work there.


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