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At a rally in March, workers from Chateaugay Correctional Facility protested the Cuomo administration's decision to close the prison in July. Photo provided by NYSCOPBA.
At a rally in March, workers from Chateaugay Correctional Facility protested the Cuomo administration's decision to close the prison in July. Photo provided by NYSCOPBA.

How America's drug war sparked the North Country prison boom

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This week, North Country Public Radio is looking in-depth at how New York's 40-year prison boom changed two very different neighborhoods, Brownsville in New York City and Chateaugay in Franklin County. Check out these stories and many more in our Prison Time Media Project.

This week, the tiny North Country town of Chateaugay learned that their local prison -- operated by the state Corrections Department -- will close in July.

The decision was made final in New York's state budget.

Town supervisor Donald Bilow told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican that he is "devastated" by the closure.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

“I am disappointed neither [Gov. Cuomo or the state] Assembly was willing to keep Chateaugay Correctional open," said state Sen. Betty Little.

She said a deal to make the prison site a tax-free zone would "not mitigate the immediate economic impact the closure will have on the community."

The facility first opened in 1990; now roughly 110 jobs are expected to be lost, as workers transfer to other correctional facilities.

A "recession proof" industry contracts

Chateaugay is the fourth North Country prison to be mothballed in recent years, following the closure of Camp Gabriels and Lyon Mountain, and coming as Mt. McGregor is also slated to shut down this summer.

A total of 13 facilities have closed statewide.

The contraction of the region's prison industry follows a major drop in the number of inmates incarcerated in New York prisons, which peaked at more than 70,000 inmates in the 1990s.

That figure has since dropped to roughly 54,600, following the easing of tough mandatory drug sentencing laws, first passed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973.

It also comes as state and federal officials are rethinking some of the most severe "tough on crime" policies, once supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, which put tens of millions of men behind bars.

Drug war gave rise to North Country's prison boom

The drug war-era prison building boom transformed the North Country's economic landscape, remaking farming towns like Chateaugay into prison communities. 

During the 1980s alone, 14 state and federal correctional facilities were built in the region.

Nelson Rockefeller's evolving views about drug crimes would bring big changes to the North Country
Nelson Rockefeller's evolving views about drug crimes would bring big changes to the North Country
Facing heroin and crack epidemics, lawmakers in Albany — and later in Washington DC — passed a series of strict laws beginning in the Seventies that sent even low-level dealers and addicts to prison, often for years or even decades

“I have one goal and one objective, and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim,” Rockefeller insisted, promising that the harsh new penalties would stem the epidemic drugs.

 To house those prisoners, state officials scrambled to build new prisons in the North Country, converting towns that relied on logging, mining, and tourism for their prosperity into one of largest prison complexes in the United States.

“They needed to build additional prison space, and it was hard to do in New York City because of the cost,” recalled Peter Repas, who served as legislative director for Ronald Stafford, the longtime state senator from Plattsburgh who represented much of the North Country.

Rockefeller’s laws inspired tougher federal drug laws as well.

Before the Park’s prison-construction effort abated in the late 1990s, a total of nearly twenty state and federal correctional facilities would be operating in the North Country region.

New York’s Corrections Department would emerge as the region’s single largest employer, hiring thousands of prison guards and civilian employees, usually in much-prized middle-class jobs.

Stafford’s Legacy

Senator Stafford, who passed away in 2005, was the son of a corrections officer and grew up in the Adirondack prison town of Dannemora, spending his childhood in the shadow of Clinton Correctional Facility’s massive walls and guard towers.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the powerful Republican worked aggressively to persuade state officials to locate new prisons in his district.

“Any time there’s an extra prison, Ron Stafford will take it,” joked a member of Governor Mario Cuomo’s staff, speaking anonymously in a 1990 interview with Newsday.

Many experts say the drug war did serious harm to urban neighborhoods downstate, sending young, first-time offenders to prison, sometimes for decades.  (Hear Natasha Haverty's report on Brownsville, NY.)

But according to Repas, Stafford never expressed doubts or regrets about expanding the prison industry in his rural district.

“He saw new prison construction as an opportunity to create jobs in an area where people were desperately looking for jobs. Many downstate communities didn’t want prisons. I still think it was a good decision,” Repas said.

Other local officials agreed. In their eyes, the prison industry offered an economic lifeline as factories, logging operations, and mines shut down.

Prisons were seen as job creators

Consider the case of Moriah in the Champlain Valley. When an iron mine closed in 1971, the community went into a prolonged downturn.

New York State moved to fill the economic void in 1989 with construction of the Moriah Shock Correctional Facility, creating more than a hundred full-time positions.

“One of the reasons they chose this site for a facility was the economic devastation of the area,” said Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava.

“They actually rehabilitated the old mine buildings for the camp. Jobs like this, you never replace them.”

Locating prisons in the North Country also made sense to many downstate policy-makers. Land was cheap, and rural towns offered a reservoir of dependable workers eager for a paycheck.

“We have so many good people working in corrections in our area,” said Sen. Little, who replaced Stafford after his retirement in 2002.

“It’s kind of a generational job. There are people who are corrections officers whose parents and relatives were in corrections. It’s been one of the stable, good jobs in the North Country.”

Brenda Brue, a nurse at Chateaugay Correctional Facility, says the closure will be "very hard."  

"I love my job there, it is wonderful, it's close to my home, it's in my community," Brue said.

New York’s Siberia

As prisons grew into a mainstay of the Park’s economy, however, controversy and resentment were brewing.

While tourists marveled at the region’s beauty—and environmentalists touted the Park as a model of land-use planning—many urban communities came to view the Park very differently, describing it as New York’s “Siberia,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s system of prison camps and gulags.

“You try not to be bitter,” said George Prendes, who was profiled in an NCPR report last year

Prendes spent fourteen years in New York prisons, including a stint in Dannemora, for a low-level drug conviction. He sells real estate in New York City.

“I lost some very good years, and there’s a lot of things that I could have done and didn’t do. I mean, I was twenty-three years old when I got arrested. I got out of prison when I was thirty-seven. That’s a big chunk of my life. I get mad sometimes, but everything isn’t always the way you want it to be.” 

During the 1980s and 1990s, as the state further toughened penalties for crack cocaine, census figures showed the North Country's population swelling with young black and Hispanic men, Prendes among them.

Most of the new “residents” were drug offenders serving time in a bleak landscape characterized by razor wire, cinderblock walls, and solitary-confinement cells.

Hundreds of thousands of young men passed through state prisons from Moriah to Ogdensburg to Malone.

Tough new questions, as prison boom fades


“One of the problems of using incarceration as a jobs program is the fundamental immorality of it,” said Robert Gangi, a prison-reform advocate in New York City who has long called for the closure of North Country prisons. He contends that too many nonviolent offenders were caught up in the system.

“You’re locking up people in order to provide other people jobs.”

Critics also pointed with increasing anger to stark racial disparities in the system. “Ninety percent of the drug offenders locked up in New York state prisons are people of color, either African-American or Latino,” noted Gangi.

“And virtually all of the prisons that have been built in recent years to house drug offenders have been located in upstate, white, rural communities.”

Hard Times for Prisons

Despite occasional controversies, however, the prison industry was widely seen as recession proof. Republicans, who dominated the Senate, blocked efforts to reform the drug laws.

Meanwhile, the national war on drugs continued to escalate, which meant more inmates serving time at the federal correctional facility in Ray Brook.

For many Adirondackers, prison work seemed like a safe bet.

Mark Siskavich hoped to finish his career working in North Country prisons.  He changed professions after Lyon Mountain Correctional was mothballed.  Photo: Brian Mann.
Mark Siskavich hoped to finish his career working in North Country prisons. He changed professions after Lyon Mountain Correctional was mothballed. Photo: Brian Mann.
“Being a corrections officer isn’t for everybody,” acknowledged Mark Siskavich, who worked for more than a decade at the Lyon Mountain prison, which closed in 2011.

“But if you don’t mind being locked up eight hours a day with the most notorious people in New York, you’ll be all right. I wanted to stay until I retired, but it didn’t work out that way.”

A job behind bars meant a middle-class salary in communities where many workers earned minimum wage. It meant health benefits, paid vacation leave, and a generous state pension.

But over the last five years, a series of developments have rocked the Park’s corrections industry, triggering prison closures and making it harder for guards to find work.

The first was a sharp reduction in crime in New York City and urban neighborhoods in western New York. No one is sure quite why, but the crime rate has plummeted statewide by 15 percent since 2003, according to figures compiled by the Department of Corrections.

To the surprise of many policy-makers, the downward trend continued despite the hard times produced by the Great Recession that began in 2007.

"Reform" movement gathers steam

The second development was a dramatic shift in Albany politics. In 2009, Democrats briefly seized control of the Senate and moved quickly to ease Rockefeller-era penalties for drug crimes.

“We will create drug courts where the judges have discretion to divert those who need help away from [prison],” announced then-Governor David Paterson.

As Paterson’s reforms were implemented, the prison population in New York dropped by nearly twenty thousand inmates, leaving empty bunks and half-filled prisons.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Adam Gelb with the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project, a group that works with state agencies to cut inmate populations. “Those of us who follow this thought that the corrections population was going to keep rising and rising almost forever, defying the laws of physics.”

The third development was New York’s catastrophic budget crisis, triggered by the Wall Street collapse in 2007, which forced politicians to consider spending cuts that once seemed inconceivable.

Governor Paterson moved to close Camp Gabriels, near Saranac Lake, in 2009, eliminating ninety-five local jobs.

Two years later, in his first State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he too would push to shutter prisons and juvenile-correctional facilities as part of an austerity campaign.

In his speech, Cuomo adopted the language of prison-reform advocates who long decried the use of prisons as a means to boost the rural economy.

“An incarceration program is not an employment program,” he insisted. “If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. That’s not what this state is all about, and that has to end this session.”

Cuomo followed through on his promise first by mothballing Lyon Mountain’s prison and eliminating sixty-five corrections-officer positions. And this past July, the Corrections Department announced plans to shutter four additional facilities next year, including two located just outside the Park: Chateaugay in northern Franklin County, with 111 guards and civilian workers; and Mount McGregor, with 320 employees in Saratoga County.

“We are continuing to right-size the state’s costly prison system and saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually,” declared acting Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci.

Hundreds of people turned out last fall in Chateaugay to protest Governor Cuomo's latest round of prison closures, which will affect two facilities in the North Country. Photo: Brian Mann
Hundreds of people turned out last fall in Chateaugay to protest Governor Cuomo's latest round of prison closures, which will affect two facilities in the North Country. Photo: Brian Mann
The news sparked outrage from the prison guard union, which has played an important role in North Country politics, serving as the largest campaign donor to many of the region’s elected officials.

Uncertainty for guards and for prison towns

Donn Rowe, the union president, has argued that too many inmates are still housed in crowded double-bunk facilities, posing security risks to guards. He called the latest downsizing plan “insulting to the hardworking men and women” in the corrections industry.

Senator Little also expressed dismay at the impending closures. “My concern is for the correctional officers who would be affected and their families,” she said.

“Without a doubt, the closing of a facility [in Franklin County] is a financial blow to them and the community.” Little has argued that state prisons should be closed first in other parts of New York that have stronger, more resilient economies.

Adirondack-area newspapers are split on the question of whether the closures were warranted with the Glens Falls Post-Star publishing a lead editorial concluding that Mount McGregor should be closed. “We’ve believed for some time that Mount McGregor had outlived its usefulness, and if there is any place that can withstand the loss of 320 jobs, it is Saratoga County.”

But the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and the Plattsburgh Press-Republican both condemned the downsizing plan, pointing to the impact on the regional economy.

“Let’s save our communities from drug addiction, unemployment and a sinking economy by convincing the governor and state legislature to leave the facilities in the North Country off the list of closures,” the Enterprise argued on its editorial page. 

The number of drug offenders now behind bars is down 71 percent since 1996. If crime rates remain low and drug convictions continue to plummet, big questions will continue to be asked about the future of correctional facilities in the Adirondack towns of Dannemora, Moriah, and Ray Brook as well as those on the periphery of the Park, such as those in Glens Falls, Ogdensburg, Johnstown, Malone, and Watertown, where prison-closures have been proposed in the past.

 “The inmate population continues to drop,” acknowledged Little, after the July announcement. “These are jobs in the North Country that will no longer be here in the future and that’s very difficult.”

This version of the Prison Time Media Project story first appeared in the Adirondack Explorer magazine and differs substantially from the audio version which can be heard by clicking the play button above.

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