Closure of Moriah Shock opposed by inmates and community alike
By Tim Rowland
After Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility would be closing March 10, her office received a bundle of 50 letters in protest. They weren’t from employees in fear of losing their jobs, nor from business leaders concerned about the local economy. The inmates themselves, who believe the small but effective prison is giving them their best chance of survival, wrote to Albany.
If unusual for a typical prison, it is not surprising for Moriah Shock, where inmates stock food pantry shelves and cut hiking trails, and where corrections officers say beleaguered Adirondack residents have been known to cheer inmate work details arriving to help clean up after a devastating flood.
In return, officers say, inmates feel appreciated and valued and develop connections to the communities they serve. It has led to an atmosphere where recidivism is half what it is elsewhere, according to union representatives.
Still, success can sometimes be hard to process. When state corrections officials were explaining their decision to close the prison, said Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, one of the listed reasons was that the grounds lacked a perimeter fence. But the point, Scozzafava said, is that Moriah Shock is one of the rare prisons that doesn’t need one.
Moriah is one of two shock units left in the state, the word shock pertaining to the boot camp atmosphere of pre-dawn wakeup calls, exercise and work details.
Union treasurer and drill sergeant Frank Gilbo said there are no problems with drugs or violence at Moriah Shock. The typically antagonistic relationships between inmates and guards does not exist; corrections officers root for inmates to succeed and pose for pictures with them when they leave. “Instead of warehousing inmates, we had the satisfaction of helping people out,” said former corrections officer Ike Tyler, who is now supervisor of the town of Westport.
“Those inmates appreciate the program,” said head cook Beth Slycord. “They thank us for giving them a good day, and we treat them like our kids.”
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If there is such a thing as a community prison Moriah Shock is it. At a recent street rally, the undefeated Moriah football team — in the midst of preparing for the state championship game — showed up to demonstrate its support by waving at passing cars.
Several players have parents who work at Moriah Shock, said star quarterback Rowan Swan, and there is concern about the economic fallout. But he said there is also a concern about the human fallout.
“It’s not really a jail. It’s a place where people get a second chance.”— Rowan Swan, Moriah High School quarterback
The prison has assigned trail crews to help the Department of Environmental Conservation accomplish projects such as opening campgrounds, constructing and maintaining trails and installing docks, and setting up boat launches, DEC says. Scozzafava wondered how the DEC, which is chronically short on staff, will make do without Moriah Shock.
And the effect of the outdoors on inmates has been profound, correction officers say. Inmates from the cities have found themselves in the middle of the wilderness, having never before seen a forest, much less a mountain. During a press tour in 2018 — before Covid shut down the work details in 2020 — inmates said they used the mountains as a metaphor for life. As they worked on a trail up Poke-O-Moonshine they developed the chant:
“I want to be a mountain climber,
Want to climb higher and higher.”
Life changing experiences
For Dave Hughes, the eight months he spent at Moriah Shock was a life-changing experience. “If I had to describe how I feel about Moriah Shock in one word it would be gratitude,” he said.
An alcohol addict, he was picked up in 2013 as a repeat DWI offender under strict new laws that permanently revoked his license and presented the real possibility of years behind bars. Instead, he fit the profile of someone who could benefit from the state’s shock program. The state gave him a choice — he could idly pass the time in a prison cell or he could do some hard work at Moriah Shock, not just on mountain trails, but on himself.
Along with an unforgiving routine, Moriah Shock focuses on addiction treatment, therapy and education.
“That place gave me the skill set to live in a small, local community, and to be self-sufficient,” Hughes said. “Without that skill set I don’t know where I’d be.”
Upon his release, employers recognized both his capabilities and his re-tooled attitude. “There are communities here that are willing to open their arms,” he said. Today, Hughes hikes a mile, regardless of the weather, to his job at the Town of Newcomb, coordinating projects that range from marketing to technology.
It’s a story Hughes doesn’t enjoy recounting, but he felt that Moriah Shock was too important to him, and others in similar circumstances, not to tell. “With that hardship, I became a stronger person,” he said.
Hard-time prisons are also notoriously hard not just on inmates, but on the corrections officers who face never-ending danger and insult. Town of Lewis Supervisor Jim Monty said he worked five years at Great Meadow Correctional Facility east of Lake George that also went by the nickname of Gladiator School.
It was wearing him out, straining his home life and he was drinking more than he should. “I could not have done another 25 years,” Monty said. Moriah Shock saved him as well. “People took pride in what they were doing with the kids,” he said. “We were teaching them that it’s OK to be tired out when you go to bed. We were teaching accountability and that when you have a problem you can talk it out.”
The crowning irony, said State Sen. Dan Stec, is that Moriah Shock represents what Albany prison reformers want — education, therapy, outlets for creativity, understanding and respect.
“By its nature, this is a prison that should be expanding, not shut down.”— State Sen. Dan Stec
Moriah Shock’s declining numbers
The decision to close Moriah Shock, along with five other upstate prisons, is numbers-driven. By the end of the 1990s — a decade when being seen as tough on crime was popular with voters — the state prison population stood at 72,773.
But politicians learned that housing one inmate can cost up to $40,000 a year. Tough drug laws had led to incarcerations of people like Hughes who might have been better served with treatment.
With recognition of alternatives, New York prison population has declined to 31,469.
Moriah Shock, fashioned out of old industrial buildings that once housed operations of the Fisher Hill iron mine, was built with a capacity of 300. According to a June audit, 104 men were housed there, about the same size as the staff.
Stec said closing the prison would only save $17 million, but in reality it’s less than that considering all the work inmates do for the state. As such, it would make more sense to add to the population at a time when there is much work to do in Adirondack public lands..
“It’s a symbiotic relationship between the needs of the park and the needs of these guys,” he said. “They are much happier when they are out doing something.”
Monty recalled one young man in particular who blossomed under the program and was on the brink of graduation when he inexplicably broke protocols in a way he knew would get him expelled. Monty wouldn’t let it drop, and finally the young man reluctantly produced a letter from his father.
No one in the household had ever succeeded at anything, it said, and graduating from Moriah Shock would show up other members of the family.
The correction officer and the inmate had a bit of a talk — and on graduation day the young man notched his family’s first success.
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