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.
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.
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.
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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.