Prison labor: The case for thanking Adirondack inmates

moriah shock ice palace
A Moriah Shock inmate works on the Saranac Lake Ice Palace. Mark Kurtz photo

Contributions of those in the corrections system deserve recognition

By Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr.

Located on a stretch of Route 86, about halfway between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, sits a discolored and weather- beaten sign. It notifies motorists—via two barely visible, yellow directional arrows—of the route to F.C.I. Ray Brook and Adirondack C.F. Visitors intrigued by the sign’s cryptic initialisms would, upon parking their vehicles, discover a rusted disc bearing the emblem of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A quick trip down Ray Brook Road would soon clarify the meanings. F.C.I. stands for Federal Correctional Institute, C.F. for Correctional Facility. Travelers unfamiliar with the legal distinctions separating the Forest Preserve from the wider Adirondack Park could be forgiven for wondering how a place “acquired for the free use of all the people of the state” and “maintained as wild forest land” for visitors’ “enjoyment” could also serve as a site of incarceration. 

raybrook sign
Photo by Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr.

Yet prisons in the Adirondacks have never existed apart from their surrounding environments. The histories of environmental planning and incarceration in northern New York State have been intertwined since the opening of Clinton State Prison at Dannemora in 1845. Pivotal to this phenomenon has been the extensive deployment of incarcerated workers on public works, conservation, and infrastructure projects in towns and villages across the North Country. Beginning in 1845—40 years before the creation of the Forest Preserve—and continuing well into the 21st century, men imprisoned in the Adirondacks have been assigned for as little as $1 per day to projects crucial to the health, well-being, and enjoyment of residents and visitors. Their labor is embedded in environments built and seemingly unbuilt across the Adirondacks. 

 When we think about state lands in northern New York “maintained for free public use,” as a roadside marker along Route 30 near Long Lake indicates, it is important, for the sake of historical accuracy, that we recognize the poorly paid incarcerated men who, for nearly two centuries, have undertaken much of that maintenance work. 

Adirondack inmates and prisons plaque
At the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center, a small plaque acknowledges the work of incarcerated men from Gabriels in building the trail network at the VIC back in the mid-late 1980s. Photo by Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr.

Some may say that imprisoned men enjoyed their time laboring outdoors in the Adirondacks. Others claim that participation in these projects imparted valuable work and social skills that aided incarcerated men upon their release and reentry into society. I do not dispute such characterizations. Even if such claims are correct, however, they do not take away from the fact that low-paid imprisoned workers have been instrumental to shaping and reshaping the Adirondack environment. 

Elsewhere on Route 86, a memorial in Wilmington marks the Forest Preserve’s centennial in 1985. It describes the surroundings as “a legacy from the past” and “a heritage for future generations.” Fair enough, but are the “legacy” and “heritage” solely the result of Gov. David B. Hill’s signature on the measure that created the preserve in 1885? Or, are they the product of careful environmental planning that, at times, involved low-wage work by imprisoned people? 

This question acquires heightened importance when we consider the racial implications of mass incarceration in late-20th century New York. Enactment of the Rockefeller drug laws and Second Felony Offender Act in 1973, among other draconian criminal justice measures, all but assured the widescale imprisonment of lower-income men of color from urban communities buffeted by decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and discrimination. As spiraling convictions in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s drove leaders to open new North Country prisons, many African American and Latino men found themselves imprisoned hundreds of miles from home in sometimes all-white Adirondack communities. 

The racial and class dynamics of outdoor prison labor are impossible to ignore: impoverished men of color working for degradingly low wages under the watchful eyes of white, well-paid corrections officers on projects that benefited a largely white population of well-to-do tourists and homeowners. 

With conservation, public works, and infrastructure improvements being performed under exploitative conditions rooted in a larger culture of racism and discrimination, it becomes difficult to look at the Adirondacks as simply a “wild forest land” created solely for visitors’ “enjoyment.” The outdoor work of imprisoned men of color has literally embedded the racism of America into, as tablets in Wilmington proclaim, “the surrounding mountains, streams, and woodlands.” 

What place does the history of incarceration and imprisoned labor occupy in the North Country’s commemorative landscape? A garden variety blue-and-yellow historical marker planted outside Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora states that work on New York’s third oldest correctional facility commenced in February 1845. The fact that incarcerated workers built the original prison, cleared surrounding forests, and built a network of roads connecting Clinton to neighboring communities is all lost to history. 


RELATED: Clarence Jefferson Hall’s research shines a light on the region’s relationship with prisons, and their invisible labor READ MORE


In nearby Lyon Mountain, home to a minimum-security prison that operated from 1983 until its closure in 2011, a small stone memorial dedicated in 1998 to correctional employees and local residents lies crumbling near the roadside. The monument’s deterioration is matched only by the decay of the former prison. 

Finally, a tile mosaic affixed to the Clinton County Government Building in downtown Plattsburgh contains the only public acknowledgement of the long history of imprisoned labor in northern New York. Part of a larger artistic work illustrating pivotal moments in Clinton County history, the tiles depict incarcerated men working in iron mining and other outdoor projects at Clinton State Prison in Dannemora in the mid-19th century. Monuments to history dot the commemorative landscape of the Adirondacks. But what is lacking are memorials to the history of places maintained and preserved by imprisoned men, especially those whose fortunes in life were determined by racial and class discrimination. This is especially true as the state prison population declines, correctional facilities shut down, and the North Country embarks on a new chapter in its long and complex history. If it is true that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it seems imperative that the North Country acknowledge the racism, classism, and exploitation that yielded the places where many of us live, work, and play.

Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. is a history professor and author of “A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this story contained an error about the location of the Ray Brook prison sign.

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This commentary first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Subscribe to receive 7 issues a year in your mailbox and/or inbox.

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Comments

  1. Valerie Pawlewicz says

    There is a lot of conflicted feeling about prisoners/the prison system here in the Adirondacks. It is a major employer, with steady and well-paid work. It is a tough career. I know families who steer their recent high school graduate to this field, since it pays well but doesn’t require much training beyond a high school education. There can be resentment on the part of the guards for any special treatment towards the prisoners–because the prisoners don’t deserve something that the guards themselves don’t get. “Special” treatment can be seen as visitors, programs, education, entertainment or access to information. There is little thought given to the fact that the jailers are white and the inmates, for the most part, are of “color”. I think it is good to explore, sound out the depths, look into our dark and hidden places of history to examine what we do and what we say about ourselves and our beloved place. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  2. JW Jacob says

    Really? Check your geography Clarence and editors. Halfway between Wilmington and Lake Placid is the Wilmington Notch. There are no prisons, correctional institutes, no nothing but the AuSable River and woods along this stretch.

  3. Worth Gretter says

    For a look inside Moriah Shock, everyone should see the movie “Ice Castle: A Love Letter”. It is a love letter to Saranac Lake of course, but the movie covers (in pretty much equal thirds) the building of the ice castle (in very challenging weather), creation of one of the floats for the parade, and the Moriah inmates (both at work on the ice castle and back at the institution). The view into Moriah is a real eye opener, and I for one came away feeling pretty positive about it.

    You can learn more about the film (which has been a big hit at festivals) and even order it on DVD at http://www.icealovestory.com.

  4. Drew P Weiner says

    Maybe some thoughts to the victims of the crimes these inmates have violated would put things more in perspective?

  5. Contrarian says

    I don’t see what that has to do with the contributions that prisoners made to the Adirondacks.

    Respectfully, your comment seems more about pettiness than actually empathizing with crime victims (something I have been myself).

    The perspective of crime victims deserves to be highlighted on its own merits in its own piece, not to minimize whatever sentiment you are misinterpreting about this story.

  6. Contrarian says

    The author highlighted the very low pay of prison laborers. A letter writer basically said they deserved low pay. And slagging off on prisoners is the “politically correct” thing to do around here. But both of these miss a key point.

    Very low paid prison laborers do jobs that could very easily be done by locals, who would be able to command something closer to a fair market wage. Don’t the Adirondacks need more reasonable paying jobs for its permanent residents?

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