North Country native shines a light on the region’s relationship with prisons, and their invisible labor
By Holly Riddle
Clarence Jefferson “Jeff” Hall Jr. grew up outside of Plattsburgh. He knows the Adirondacks. But as Hall approached his graduate school dissertation, with the idea of tracing Adirondack labor and industrial history, he came upon a somewhat overlooked area of regional history.
“I realized there are all these prisons,” he says. “Growing up, I had a hazy understanding of prisons and what a big force they were in the area, but when my [graduate school] advisor told me to start doing research, I really didn’t even know where to start. I didn’t start graduate school with any interest in studying this topic, but it built over time and I became, obviously, extremely interested in it, because I’m basically centering my career around the topic of incarceration.”
Today, Hall is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Queensborough Community College/CUNY and visiting instructor in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His first book, “A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country,” was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in November 2020.
His book was, in part, an effort to somewhat remedy this gap in Adirondack history.
“There’s a huge gaping hole of knowledge in this area about the history here, at least as far as incarceration goes. There have been almost two centuries of incarceration in this area.”– Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr., author of “A Prison in the Woods.”
Recently, the Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College hosted Hall for a lecture on the topic, including how the Adirondack environment — both the natural environment and the social environment — has influenced, and been influenced by, the region’s prisons and relationship with incarceration. The lecture traced, as much as it could over an hour, the history of incarceration in the Adirondacks, all the way up to its impacts today.
Nearly two centuries of incarceration
Today, the small community of Dannemora is mostly memorable thanks to the hulking, white beast of a prison that juts right up to its main street (as well as the famous prison escape in June 2015). But, in the early 1840s, that land was an uninhabited spruce forest home to only one human-built structure and an extensive supply of untapped iron ore — until state officials decided to build a financially self-sufficient prison on the land to alleviate overcrowding in its current prisons. Clinton State Prison opened in 1845, irrevocably tied to the Adirondack land by its mere existence.
Fast-forward through history, to the 1970s, New York again experienced significant overcrowding within its prison system and, again, looked at the Adirondacks to provide the land needed for such infrastructure, as well as the remote locale that would appease the state’s wealthier populations who wanted no prisons built within their reach. Soon, Raybrook’s former state-run tuberculosis hospital was converted into a minimum-security prison. Not much later, an undeveloped piece of property in Raybrook was converted into infrastructure that would, first, serve as Olympic housing for athletes during Lake Placid’s 1980 Olympics and then afterward serve as a federal prison.
But these prisons’ impacts were felt beyond the disruptions to the natural environment (though that’s reason enough for concern). The building and maintaining these prisons brought up questions of race, as the majority of incarcerated individuals throughout the North Country were (and are) people of color. They impacted the North Country economy, both for better and for worse, as the prisons brought jobs to remote Adirondack communities; however, in more recent history, prisons have been closed, leaving residents who’ve relied on the prisons for work, in some cases for generations, to ask “what now?”
Where do we go from here?
The subject of incarceration in the Adirondacks is nuanced and deep, multifaceted and just as timely now as it was when these prisons were built. As Hall is quick to point out in his lecture, even tourists experience the effects of Adirondack incarceration, as some of the area’s most prominent attractions were built by prison laborers, from scenic roadways to some of the slopes at Whiteface Ski Area. So why not talk about it?
“For many of these communities, [prisons are] the only source of employment … Many people, for that basic reason of just survival, don’t want to talk too much about the prison system’s bigger implications. If you start asking questions, it can become uncomfortable and then, of course, it could lead to what’s already happened in the last 12 years. Three of the prisons have closed and probably more will close.”
A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country
Published by the University of Massachusetts Press in November 2020.
So what’s the answer? That question may be as difficult as any of the others surrounding Hall’s research and writing. When so many issues are entrenched in an institution, solving them all is no quick fix. However, there are still opportunities for local populations to get involved in solving these issues that reside right outside their back doors.
Hall recommends John Brown Lives!, the organization tied to Lake Placid’s John Brown Farm State Historic Site that leads initiatives dealing with not only mass incarceration, but also issues such as civil rights, voting rights and immigrant rights.
He also has his own initiative in the works, a mapping project to detail both the sites of incarceration in the North Country as well as the sites of incarcerated labor in the North Country.
“Prisons are brick-and-mortar institutions where people live and work, but their impacts are felt basically everywhere you go, especially up here. The only thing is, most people don’t know it, but the impacts are tangible. The hiking trail that you might be on or the ski trail or the campsite, or even the roadway that you’re riding on … incarcerated people worked all over this area,” Hall summarizes.
“It would be nice if people understood we are all invested in this system in the North Country, whether you work there or not, whether you have a family member there or not, whether you are incarcerated there or not. We’re all invested in some way. Understanding that we’re connected to the system helps build more empathy for both the people incarcerated and also the people who work there.”