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Brother Yusuf  Abdul-Wasi (R) and Joe Hackett (L) with moderator Russell Banks at an event hosted by John Brown Lives. Photo: Brian Mann
Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi (R) and Joe Hackett (L) with moderator Russell Banks at an event hosted by John Brown Lives. Photo: Brian Mann

A prison inmate, a corrections worker, a conversation

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This week, our Prison Time Media Project is focusing in-depth on the the world of corrections here in the North Country.

There are more than a dozen state and Federal prisons in our region, from Cape Vincent to the town of Moreau. The industry is a pillar of the economy in many rural towns.

But those prisons are also a place where prison guards, civilian workers and inmates struggle every day to communicate, grappling with huge differences of race and class.

Two men -- a former inmate and a former corrections worker -- are working to bridge that divide by talking about their shared experience behind bars.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Yusuf and I knew each other well and everything else, and we had a mutual arrangement, but he knew to keep his distance, and I knew to keep my distance.
In the 1980s, not long after Camp Gabriels prison opened north of Saranac Lake, Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi was sent north from New York City. 

“I was sent there as a result of a substance abuse crime,” he said. “A crime that was drug-related in New York City.”

Brother Yusuf – who’s a grey-haired man now – says he found himself far from home in a minimum security prison camp deep in the wintery north woods.  But he quickly made a connection.

“I was a solo worker for the mail room, so I saw Joe often, as the good guy.”  

The Joe he’s talking about is Joe Hackett, the North Country writer and outdoor guide, who also worked for decades as a recreation counselor at Camp Gabriels.

Hackett was there when Gabriels opened and as the first inmates arrived he helped to create a lot of the programs from scratch.

“We built a outdoor course that was built basically out of wood, and we brought other things, we brought cross-country skiing,” Hackett said. “We [were] the only facility in the state of New York that had skis and poles.”

Prison life is a complicated world.  There are rules written and unwritten.  Over the years that followed, Joe Hackett – who was known as Mr. H – and Brother Yusuf, who was the leader of Camp Gabriels’ small Muslim community, developed what they describe as an understanding.

“Joe and I – it was more eye contact than conversation,” Brother Yusuf said.  

“I didn’t want to be an inmate lover,” Hackett said. “Yusuf and I knew each other well and everything else, and we had a mutual arrangement, but he knew to keep his distance, and I knew to keep my distance.”

“Like I say, it was a lot of non-verbal communication – in the sense of nodding, and knowing what was next,” Brother Yusuf said.

So this is a huge part of life in the North Country’s prisons – this constant negotiation across racial and cultural distances. Prison means very different things to the men and women standing on both sides of those bars.

Camp Gabriels, once the center of a fierce debate over prisons, closed its doors in 2009.  Source: Save Camp Gabriels
Camp Gabriels, once the center of a fierce debate over prisons, closed its doors in 2009. Source: Save Camp Gabriels
Joe Hackett was a civilian recreation counselor, not an actual guard.  But for him, like a lot of people in the North Country, Camp Gabriels represented an opportunity. A chance to get ahead.

“As far as the opportunity for employment, it’s hard to beat it. It’s good wages. There’s a state pension.”   

For Brother Yusuf, meanwhile, and for a lot of the inmates who come north, life behind bars is a devastating experience. This is a journey into a frightening, alienating place.

“First impressions inside the correctional facilities were always harsh and crazy,” he said. “They want to put fear in you, to make a first impression that ‘You’re coming into my house, and I run this spot.’”

This is the divide that corrections workers in the North Country and inmates navigate every day – these huge differences of race and culture and background. 

It’s a gap made more complicated by the tension and distrust of life behind bars. Hackett, who’s white, says going to work at Camp Gabriels was like stepping from one world to another.

“I’d be out fishing or hiking or paddling all day, and then I would go back into the world of corrections, and change my hat, basically,” he said.

Hackett and Brother Yusuf agreed to sit down and describe these very different experiences of prison life this fall at a gathering organized in Lake Placid by the group John Brown Lives.

Brother Yusuf says he first started cycling through New York’s prison system after coming home from war.

“I don’t say this as an excuse, but I am a Vietnam vet who came back with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as substance abuse from the country of Vietnam. And [I] could not find my way home through all that muck and mire of internal conflict,” he said.

Brother Yusuf says his first experiences of the North Country was pretty typical of a lot of blacks and Hispanic people from urban neighborhoods.

The only thing we saw and knew about the Adirondacks – we called it ‘upstate.’ Everything was ‘upstate.’ That you’re going up north. You’re going up north, and when you go up north, you go up to get locked up,” he said. “When families came through the Adirondacks, they didn’t stop to recreate. They were in a bus coming to visit. The only time I saw the Adirondacks was in a gated bus.”

Joe Hackett says he tried hard to bridge some of that divide.  He brought local sports teams into Camp Gabriels to play and compete with inmates.  He says he tried to treat the men in his care with dignity.

But Hackett says there was a constant level of distrust.

“You’d always have in the back of your head, ‘I’m going to run into somebody on the street,’” he said. “And you don’t know how you’re going to react or how they’re going to react.”

He tells the story of meeting a former inmate, a black man, on the New York City subway.

“I didn’t have any trust. I’m out of my field, I’m out of my comfort zone.”

Hackett says that kind of distrust was common among corrections officers even in a minimum security facility like Camp Gabriels.

“We always had the officers who come in and say, ‘Why the hell are we getting weights? Their just going to get bigger and stronger and faster, and we’re going to have to tackle them sooner or later.”

In the North Country, a high percentage of prison inmates are black and Hispanic – while the vast majority of corrections workers are white.

Brother Yusuf says this racial and cultural tension is a normal experience for blacks – those serving time, and those who are civilians on the street.

“There are some folks who look at the African-American population as the folks who will offend. And the folks who need to be mastered, or need to be locked up, or need to be – ‘I need to be protected from.’”

Studies show that African Americans who deal and use drugs are far more likely to be arrested and serve lengthy prison sentences than whites. 

One place where Hackett and Brother Yusuf agree is on the quality of experience for inmates, once they arrive at North Country prisons.  Both say there need to be huge improvements in counseling and education programs.

“There was no corrections going on in this correctional facility,” Brother Yusuf said. “It was definitely warehousing.”

“And I think you put it well, there’s very little corrections in corrections,” Hackett said. 

After leaving prison, Brother Yusuf also fell in love with the outdoors. 

He reinvented himself, settling in Albany, becoming an avid paddler and hiker. He later developed programs aimed at showing urban kids another side of the North Country. 

“What I did was  infuse the  kayak, the hiking, the camping, the fishing into the gang prevention program, and we called it ‘Ultimate Journey,’ and that’s how we got to be frequenting the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Hudson River.”

But he says that journey from prison to a productive life took years of therapy and counseling.

“When I came home from Camp Gabriels, it was eight years before my wife and I reconciled. Eight years. And I have three sons.”

Listening to the conversation between Joe Hackett and Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi it’s striking how rare this kind of dialogue is.  In a region where prisons are a mainstay of the economy and a way of life for so many, just the fact that a corrections worker and a former inmate are sitting down together as equals to talk about their lives seems like a remarkable thing.

The group John Brown Lives plans to hold a second public conversation between the two men on December 10th – this time at black community center in Albany. 

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