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Martha Foley, left, with Natasha Haverty and Brian Mann, talk about the Prison Time Media Project.
Martha Foley, left, with Natasha Haverty and Brian Mann, talk about the Prison Time Media Project.

North Country prison industry transforming, shrinking

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Over the last sixteen months, North Country Public Radio has broadcast a series of stories, reports and interviews looking at America's era of mass incarceration.

The 40-year drug war sent millions of Americans to prison. And it transformed the North Country as more than a dozen state and federal prisons were built in our back yards.

This week, we're wrapping up the first part of the series by looking at two communities transformed by the drug war: Chateaugay in northern Franklin County, which is currently fighting to save a local prison, and Brownsville, in New York City, a community that has seen a generation of men sent away to prison.

We'll start this special week with the two journalists who've done the work for the series, Brian Mann and Natasha Haverty. They have logged hundreds of miles and many hundreds of hours researching, reporting and producing our stories.

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Watch the Roundtable in video (below) listen to the audio (above) or read the script (below)

Martha Foley: Brian, let's start with you.  Why spend a year — more than a year now — looking at this one question, how prisons affected the North Country?

Brian Mann:  We realized that we had hit the forty-year anniversary of the Rockefeller drug laws, laws that really transformed the way Americans think about crime, drug addiction, and justice.  And we felt like this was a social change that connected the North Country to the rest of the country in really profound ways. 

We started talking to people like Joseph Persico, a former aide to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who helped implement these tough drug laws back in the 1970s, who now have big questions about their fairness and effectiveness.

"I concluded very early that this was a failure, Persico said. " I mean it's filling up the prisons, first time offenders—this was obviously unjust—and not just unjust, but unwise; it was ineffective"

MF: So there's this re-evaluation going on, this second look at the Rockefeller drug laws and similar laws around the country.  But this is also a time when New York State is making a change, closing prisons for the first time in decades.

BM:  That's right.  We've already seen Lyon Mountain and Camp Gabriels close here in the North Country.  Chateaugay and Mt. McGregor are on the chopping block now.  That's really troubling for people like Billy Jones, head of Franklin County's board of legisators and also a prison guard at Chateuagay.

“I’m angry that our local economy will be devastated with the closure of this facility. Our rural area depends on these public sector jobs. I’m angry that they are taking the backbone of our community away from us. One hundred eleven jobs we can ill afford the stress that it puts on our families that have to be displaced.”

MF: Okay, so big changes underway about the future of prisons and prison jobs.  Tasha Haverty, one of your focuses this year was looking at how prisons affect the inmates, their families and their communities, especially some of these really tough, decades-long drug sentences.

Tasha Haverty:  So the Rockefeller Laws really marked a shift in our thinking about drugs: we went from thinking about them as a health issue that needed treatment, to something that needed big punishment. Suddenly a drug crime might carry a longer prison sentence than murder. And as these new prisons were getting built to accommodate the growing numbers of people going away for ten, twenty years, the majority of those people were black and Hispanic men from New York City. And what you find today, talking to people from those communities, is that an entire generation of men just sort of disappeared. Here’s George Prendes, who did 15 years for drug possession.

George Prendes, outside the apartment he lived in before he went to prison, on 107th Street and Central Park West. Photo: Natasha Haverty
George Prendes, outside the apartment he lived in before he went to prison, on 107th Street and Central Park West. Photo: Natasha Haverty
“There’s a lot of things that I could’ve done and couldn’t do. I mean, I was 23 years old when I got arrested; I got out of prison when I was 37. That was a big chunk of my life.”

TH:  So these laws reshaped entire lives, and not just the lives of the people behind bars, it also caught up their families. Here’s George’s sister, Mercedes.

George Prendes (holding the flag) with his younger sister Mercedes and younger brother Roberto. Photo courtesy of Mercedes Prendes
George Prendes (holding the flag) with his younger sister Mercedes and younger brother Roberto. Photo courtesy of Mercedes Prendes
“I don’t think people realize with a sentence like that, it takes away not only from a person, it takes away from a family. It had profound effect that you don’t come back from” 

MF: That's wrenching—and I get that there are real questions here about the number of people winding up in prison and the fairness of who these laws sentenced—but what about the argument that a lot of people who wind up in North Country prisons are dangerous, bad, disruptive?

BM:  Right.  This is the argument that a lot of people who believe in the tough on crime movement are still making.  They think prisons are a good way to provide jobs, and they think the idea of cutting the number of inmates means putting more bad people out on the street.  At a rally earlier this month in Albany, state Senator Martin Golden, a Republican, laid out this idea clearly:

“Who is going to be the next facility? Who is going to be on next year’s closure list? And the closure list will continue to go on and on. Enough. We need to put the bad people in this great city and state in jail where they belong and keep these facilities open.”

TH:  Right, so that's the "bad guy" theory about prisons.  But this is interesting.  We found that a growing number of law enforcement experts — from local police up to the Attorney General of the United States, are questioning this framework.  They're suggesting that a lot of people who wind up in prison are just, you know, poor or don't have enough education.  Here's John Cutter, a former police officer in New York City who I interviewed about drug arrests there:

“Take, for example, a low-level street dealer, you know, who is dealing drugs in an effort to survive, because he doesn’t know anything else. He doesn’t know how to do anything else and has found an easy way to make money. But inherently he is not necessarily a bad individual. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but there are people who are trapped in circumstance, who they have no other way to get by."

MF: Tasha, what did  you guys find out about alternatives?  I mean, if we're not sending a lot of drug addicts and low-level dealers to prison, what can society do?  Do we just leave these folks on the street and in our neighborhood.

TH:  It is interesting that a growing number of people are talking about responding to drug epidemics as we would any other public health emergency, with a combination of treatment, counseling, interventions. The pendulum is sort of swinging back in that direction. You heard that former police officer saying we can’t talk about these issues without talking about other problems facing communities. But there are no quick fixes here.  I spoke with a former inmate at Moriah Shock Correctional facility in Essex county — a guy named Jeff — who's in recovery from opiate addiction.

“You genuinely believe ‘I am going to die if I don’t have this drug, and you may not connect it with death but it’s a sort of death, it’s a fear, it’s an obsession. I would look forward to waking up to take drugs to feel good, and I would look forward to taking drugs to go to sleep to feel good before I fell asleep.”

MF: This week, you guys are contrasting the way that the drug war changed two communities, Chateaugay here in the North Country, and Brownsville down in New York City.  Brian, why did you think that was important to do?

BM: The drug war did something really strange that we're still trying to sort out.  It looked at communities with very similar problems, poverty, the loss of jobs, the loss of industries, and came up with two very different sets of solutions.  In many parts of rural America, the answer was to build prisons, to make jobs around this idea of using prisons to solve society's problems.  But in urban America, the solution — and for a long time this was supported by just about everyone — the solution was to lock people up. So you had this intertwining of life, this ecology of economics and morality and justice, that really ties a place like Chateaugay to a place like Brownsville.  But usually those connections are kind of invisible.  We wanted to pull that out and examine it.

MF: Tasha, what's your sense for where this debate goes nationally?  The U.S. still has the biggest inmate population in the world by a wide margin.  As these new questions get asked, will those historically high numbers begin to come down?

NH:  Well we’re starting to see those numbers go down here in New York. And across political parties, you’re seeing a new bipartisan consensus that this can’t go on, that it’s just not financially feasible, these prisons are just too expensive.  You have Attorney General Eric Holder pushing for change, but you also have two Republican presidential frontrunners, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, pushing for change. So the bottom line is that people are talking about these issues from a moral perspective, but they're also saying that there just have to more economical solutions to drug addiction and low-level street crime.

MF: Brian, where does this go for the North Country?  Nine prisons have already closed statewide.  Four more are slated to close in July.  This industry used to be viewed as recession proof for our region.  Is this new uncertainty likely to continue?

BM:  I think it will.  The Rockefeller drug laws were eased in 2009.  The inmate population has plunged since.  Governor Cuomo is pushing even more reforms that will bring down the state's inmate population even further.  And he continues to argue that prisons just shouldn't be seen as an industry anymore.  It's important to point out though that people like state Senator Betty Little are convinced that there aren't yet any better alternatives for rural towns like Ogdensburg and Malone and Moriah.

“You know, we rely on government jobs in the Adirondacks, and until we can get enough private sector jobs we just can’t shut them down; there’s nothing to take their place.”

MF: Okay, this is obviously a tension that's going to be playing out here in the North Country for a long time, this debate over how correctional facilities fit into our economy, their cost, and the debate over prison reform that's growing here in New York and around the US.

Tomorrow, Tasha takes us to Brownsville, a neighborhood in New York City profoundly changed by the 40 year drug war.  It's all part of our Prison Time Media Project.  Thanks, guys.

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 Foundation. Hear more from the series at

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