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.”
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Shawn typhair says
Complete and utter garbage. Those institutions owe nothing to people who were there because of their criminal activities. Get a grip on reality. The taxpayers of this state and the residents of those communities should decide the fate of the property. Whacked out special interest are killing the park.
Can we jam in any more liberal douchebagery into a single article.
Amen. I thought I would read about a new hotel or something. Not about how the justice system pushes its racist agenda.. ridiculous! Crime has no color.
Perhaps. But I would prefer to see a well-written conservative rebuttal/response. I won’t hold my breath. It seems conservative “views” amount to little more than name-calling and tribalism, as you have shown.
Richard Faulkner says
Wow that article is terrible. Obey the law and stay out of prison. It’s really that simple.
David Gibson says
Consider walking some distance in the shoes that Alice Green and others on that panel have walked throughout their lives, and it’s really not that simple. Consider the toll of the “war on drugs” and where it has gotten us. Consider taking the bus all day and all night, season after season, to visit a loved one in the North Country’s prisons. Their history, their truth may be painful, because the truth does hurt, but their spirit, strength, courage and hope are as strong as ever. That does not make those who worked and earned a family wage at the prisons bad or evil people. Not at all. This can be, must be their story, too. Thanks to the sponsor of the workshop, it was worth a listen, and to the writer for reporting on it in his own words.
Wow sad that people continue to be ignorant about inequities and the war on drugs. As one says do not comitt crimes…now there are numerous white people who comit crimes who do not get the time.
Just what is needed a hotel..lol
The state and the taxpayers need to get rid of these properties. The state should sell them like they wanted to. Just do the amendment. Gabriel’s would already be a summer camp if it wasn’t such a hassle do do anything in NYS.
Wayne Miller says
I am disappointed that the article and the State are excluding other shuttered ‘gulag archipelago’ facilities from the discussion, i.e. Chateaugay, Lyon Mountain, Ogdensburg, etc.
For more context of Rockefeller’s tough on crime turn away from his otherwise moderate Republican record, see “Blood in the Water”. This superbly written and documented history of the Attica riot and its brutal ending explains how Rocky’s presidential aspirations meant he needed to prove to the right that he wasn’t ‘soft on crime’ so he embraced the most draconian and violent measures against the underclass to prove his resolve to ‘fight crime’. Unsuccessfully. But it did get him appointed V-P after Spiro Agnew’s bribery and tax evasion convictions.
The inherent and overt bias and racism of which the author only scratches the surface is fully expressed in many of the comments. And the unwillingness or inability to even consider another point of view illustrates the two solitudes of today’s USA politics.
Gregg Lojo says
What a disappointing article. The liberal agenda is what is fueling the mass exodus from this state. Crime has consequences, or have we forgotten that? The Adirondack Council should keep out of these issues.