Reuse should be mindful of the past, advocates say
By Tim Rowland
Any reuse of shuttered Adirondack prisons needs to reckon with a sullied slice of Adirondack history. A time in which mass incarceration became a vehicle in which white people accumulated money and political power at the expense of people of color, a panel of experts said Wednesday.
Such re-use might include reparations in the form of green-energy training and workforce housing that would be welcoming to people of color. It might also emphasize social justice and become centers for history and education.
“There is an urgent need for history to be preserved and interpreted,” said Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr., an assistant professor in the Department of History at Queensborough Community College and author of “A Prison in the Woods.” “I hope the new owners and users will do more than put up a plaque.”
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An extreme downsizing of the state prison population has led to the closure of five prisons within or just or just outside the Blue Line. The state pledged to find new uses for the buildings, a promise it has so far failed to keep.
But the closure of Moriah Shock north of Port Henry last year, and the loud public protest that resulted, prompted the state to produce a study of potential reuse, which critics say is full of lofty language and bereft of workable ideas — “window dressing” that “does nothing,” said Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava at the time of the report’s release.
Panelists this week panned the report for another reason, saying it ignored the elephant in the room, that being the great legacy of pain and injustice caused by state incarceration policy.
The panel was assembled by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage, whose interest, said Executive Director Erin Tobin, is in representing meaningful buildings in all Adirondack communities. Along with Hall, the panel included Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice; Aaron Mair, wilderness campaign director for the Adirondack Council; Ara Newman, a former commissary clerk at Camp Gabriels; and Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!
While the work camps of Gabriels and Moriah Shock were widely praised in the white communities that benefited from the free labor and also from the jobs prisons provided, Mair said these programs bore an unnerving resemblance to the plantation system of the old South.
“Folks were comfortable with people of color being enslaved,” Mair said. “This was a chain gang without the chain.”
Politicians, meanwhile, came to power on a concentrated constituency of whites, even though for apportionment purposes prisoners were counted when drawing district lines. This, even though, as Green said, “they were not the least bit interested in representing the people who got them into power.”
The era of mass incarceration dates back to the 1970s, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, not wishing to be cast as soft on crime, ushered in severe drug laws, in which those selling or possessing as little as two to four ounces of heroin, marijuana or other drugs could be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years to life.
The result for people of color was devastating. People of color, devoid of economic opportunities in the cities in which they lived, were most susceptible to being swept up and shipped north. “Poverty drives crime,” Mair said, noting that this “structural inequity” guaranteed that people of color were virtually guaranteed of being most severely impacted.
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As mills and mines in the North Country shut down and white communities were clamoring for jobs, these northern prisons gave North Country politicians a convenient avenue for employment.
That paradigm, Mair said, smacked of white overlords watching over enslaved populations, of which 70% were people of color.
“The state has a hell of a burden that it must make right,” he said.
A major obstacle to the sale and reuse of Gabriels and Moriah Shock, at least in the state’s eyes, is that they are within the Forest Preserve, meaning that their sale would have to be facilitated by a constitutional amendment, a cumbersome, years-long process that so far has failed to gain momentum.
Panelists said it might make more sense for the state to develop the properties itself. There’s an acute need, they said, for both workforce housing and green-jobs training in the Adirondacks, making a significant state investment worth the cost. “We have a lot to do, but this is a powerful opportunity,” Mair said.
Running parallel to economics, panelists said, is the need to face an ugly era in Adirondack history head on, and approach it as a chance to use the old buildings as beacons of education and social justice. But a relatively recent movement in the name of Adirondack diversity faces cultural challenges of its own, one that can’t be addressed through a state budget appropriation.
The period of mass incarceration left a stain that will be difficult to cleanse, and is a roadblock for diversification. People of color “are scared to go North, because they think of it as prison country,” Green said. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”