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On the inside looking out. An image from the documentary film "The House I Live In." Photo: "The House I Live In," used by permission
On the inside looking out. An image from the documentary film "The House I Live In." Photo: "The House I Live In," used by permission

Why don't we talk more about North Country prisons?

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Locking people up and keeping them behind bars is one of the North Country's biggest industries. There are more than twenty jails and prison facilities scattered across our rural region. Corrections and law enforcement agencies provide high-paying jobs from Ogdensburg to Glens Falls.

But the prison industry isn't something we talk about very often. The North Country's Regional Economic Development plan talks about renewable energy and trains and farms and government. But it doesn't even mention prisons -- not once.

Earlier this month, a student group at SUNY Plattsburgh invited community members, faculty and activists to meet and talk about mass incarceration and how it affects communities.

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Christopher St. John stands in front of a movie screen in Plattsburgh and the truth is that he's mostly speaking to empty seats.

But for the few dozen people who have turned out tonight, he says this is a necessary conversation.

"We're doing as many of these kinds of events as possible," he says. "Because frankly drug policy in the United States is generally and grossly overlooked."

St. John is producer of a film released last year called "The House I Live In." It's the story of America's four-decade long war on drugs – the story of how America built the largest prison industry on earth.

Lunchtime in the mess hall at Moriah Shock prison in Essex County. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Lunchtime in the mess hall at Moriah Shock prison in Essex County. Photo: Natasha Haverty
"The scale is unbelievable," declares the film's trailer. "Nobody jails their population at the rate that we do."

The fact is, the North Country is one of the major flashpoints for this conversation – a place where America's new prison industry has flourished.

But more and more, people are asking questions about the cost and the effectiveness of incarcerating millions of people, many inmates serving time for low-level non-violent drug crimes.

The movie introduces expert after expert who argues that the system just hasn't worked.

"In my fifteen years, I've sent over 2600 people to Federal prison," says Judge Mark Bennett, a US District Dourt judge for the northern district of Iowa, one of the documentary's sources.

America has developed a massive infrastructure to combat drugs and to incarcerate drug offenders. Is it worth it?  Photo: "The House I Live In," used by permission
America has developed a massive infrastructure to combat drugs and to incarcerate drug offenders. Is it worth it? Photo: "The House I Live In," used by permission
The film introducers prison guards, cops, lawmakers, and judges, who say mandatory minimum drug laws are targeting the wrong people.

"The average person I sentence in a drug case is a non-violent blue collar worker who lost their job and then turned to manufacturing methamphetamine to support their habit," Judge Bennett notes.

"And we treat them like they're kingpins."

"The House I Live In" is part of a new wave of books and films and activist projects re-examining how the war on drugs changed America.

And there's been a modest wave of reforms – including changes to New York's tough Rockefeller drug laws. In many states, those changes have meant fewer inmates behind bars.

The film's producer, Christopher St. John, says he thinks the moment is right for this new conversation.

We are engaged in a great experiment. What does [mass incarceration] do to the larger community?
"I hate to break it down to left or right, but generally you have a conservative faction that says, 'listen, we're not going to spend any more money incarcerating people,' and you have a left-leaning faction that says, 'look, we can't incarcerate more people because we're tearing communities apart.' And they're finding common ground and that's exciting."

At the gathering here in Plattsburgh, sponsored by the campus's Center for Diversity, Pluralism, and Inclusion – reaction to the film is pretty straight forward.

People who've bothered to come to see the "House I Live In" are generally outraged by the country's prison industry.

"I'm afraid that the people in power, the people with money and the corporations are trying to privatize the industry," says Tom Wood, a Plattsburgh Town councilman who worked in state prisons for twenty years.

"They make money by putting more people in prison. So they're going to want to put more people in. They don't want to change these laws. To change these laws is a monumental task."

The movie makes the argument repeatedly that drug use is fairly uniform across American society – but the vast majority of arrests and prosecutions target poor African Americans and Hispanics.

"People who are from wealthy families who can get them out of the charges, they don't go to jail, or if they do it's minimum security," concluded one of the SUNY Plattsburgh students who watched the film.

"I mean effectively people who can afford to pay for the right lawyers are no percentage [of the US inmate population]," agreed St. John. "It's definitely a class-based system."

If there's a central argument to "The House I Live In," it may be that the war on drugs and mass incarceration have come to have far more to do with money and the shifting economy – and far less to do with the problems of crime and drug addiction.

The documentary makes the case that drug addiction rose in inner cities when the jobs and the opportunities went away.

And prisons became a new industry in rural places like the North Country when the factories and the farms began to shut down.

Christopher St. John says that as we look for reforms to the prison industry and the war on drugs, part of the conversation has to be about how small towns and urban neighborhoods recover

"It was interesting tonight, the question what happens to these communities [if the prisons shut down] because it's certainly a valid question."

It's no wonder this conversation is so hard to have – no wonder so few people turn out to talk about our prisons.

Black urban neighborhoods and white rural towns are tangled up together, bound by the challenges of poverty, by shifting ideas about justice, by the epidemics of crack and heroin and meth.

The truth is that most of the people talking about and living this reality are inside the prisons, with corrections officers on one side of the bars and thousands of inmates on the other.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org

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