Joe Hackett has spent time in prison. Yes, the well known local guide, columnist, and scout for Seventh Avenue has spent years in jail, not as a inmate, but as a recreation coordinator at Camp Gabriels, a former New York State Minimum Security prison shuttered a few years ago by the state.
Once a tuberculosis sanatorium, the 92-acre facility was sold to the state in 1982, which operated it as a 336 bed-prison until 2009. There many of the prisoners worked on forestry and community service-related, projects, yet not-withstanding, it was prison far, far from home and family for the men housed there. For them the “Dacks” was a cold, hostile and distant place.
The prison was built, as were most in the North Country, as an outcome of the ‘War of Drugs’ and in particular Rockefeller Drugs laws that resulted in mass incarceration and a resultant building boom here because most urban and suburban voters did not want prisons located in ‘their back yards.’ Under the leadership of the late Senator Ron Stafford, such projects were welcomed for the many solid salaries they offered and, as a result, New York Corrections is the largest employer in the North Country.
However over the past decade there has been a decline in prison populations, an outcome of lowered crime rates and changes in sentencing procedures resulting in the closing of prisons, a process that has been spurred further by the need cut state budgets in the current recession. The end result has been many prisons, such as Camp Gabriels, being closed in the North Country. With more scheduled and still more likely to come, local state representatives have been placed in the awkward position of arguing to keep prisons open for their economic benefits against their downstate counterparts who desire to keep those located near urban areas open to enhance inmate-family relations, a key element in fostering a successful transition back onto society by inmates.
John Brown Lives!, with a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, has launched ‘The Correction,’ a series of community conversations to examine different aspects of the quandary and the impact of the ‘War on Drugs’ on the North Country. The first was held at the Northwoods Inn, in Lake Placid on September 12th, and featured a conversation between Joe Hackett, Mr. H. to the inmates, and Brother Yusef Wasi who served time at Camp Gabriels, and through an odd coincidence of fate, found himself returning to the North County not as a prisoner, but now as a youth counselor in the Capital District who introduces inner-city kids and kids at risk to nature as a way of providing alternatives to how they live their lives.
Moderated by author and Keene resident Russell Banks, conversation touched on a wide variety of aspects of life during and after prison for both Joe and Yusef, and what they have learned along the way.
“What do you think it means of the humanism of a given community, of this community, of the North Country that the largest single employer up here is the prison system?” asked Russell Banks.
“The first time I saw the Adirondacks was riding up in a gated bus to be locked up not knowing what the reception would be like,” Brother Yusef Wasi. “First impressions inside the facility was always harsh, and crazy. When the hosting crew got you in there they want to put fear in you and make the first impression that you are coming into my house and I run this spot. The reception was always rough. I was expecting someone’s going to be beaten with a stick, or strop searched and embarrassed, and I hoped it was not going to be me.”
“It wasn’t until after I got out, after having been counseled by some folks that there was a restorative power to nature, that I came to visit,” Brother Yusef continued. “There are two sides to this world here. There is the beautiful mountain side that I have gone to when I take kids to the Adirondack History Museum, the side when I come here to do what I do with young people, and there is the other side that is really about green uniforms, heartaches, and a lot of dreams that are not met.”
“Where I am from young people do not trust the Adirondacks. They only know about the lockup side. They do not know about the campground side, the Adirondack Mountain Club, or Heart Lake, or the things I found afterwards. I have read about that even in the towns where the correctional facilities are, they count the people inside their jails as part of their population and by doing that, being able to get more than is really due to them.”
“Corrections is not corrections,” said Joe Hackett. “It is warehousing. I don’t know that it is purposeful. I know that they have good counselors and good teachers, and at a facility like Camp Gabriels you had the opportunity to do more than another place that just warehouses. There you have the opportunity to get out on a work crew or some other activity. As far as an opportunity for employment it is hard to beat it, good wages, a state pension. The other good thing is that it is shift work. You could work two eight-hour days and then you have a day off. You are allowed to swap with other officers so you can have a long time off.”
“There is another perspective, which former fully incarcerated people going home to communities not fully prepared for them,” said Wasi. “There is an impact on the family, the community, and on that particular individual who is coming home with not a lot of resources to gain meaningful employment and the stigma of being an ex-offender, which cuts into his opportunities. When I came back from Camp Gabriels it was eight years before my wife and I reconciled, eight years! I had three sons. It took a lot of time.”
“So the economy changing, faltering, or being on the wane up here because of closure, I don’t weigh that as significant as to what is happening to a lot of people in the five boroughs and throughout upstate that are hit hard before and after incarceration and release. The release programs do not have enough money, they do not give enough time and attention to the young persons coming home without the skills to making a living – coming home after being away so long from friends and family, from gainful employment, from skills, not getting the skills, and coming home to face taunts that you are an inmate, an ex offender, you have been an abuser.”
“I don’t think the economics going forward are in corrections, I think the economics are in the environment, in a responsible use of the environment,” said Hackett. “I think we need to be more creative to how we think about reusing these facilities, and not for just ex inmates, but for anybody who wants to start a new life.”
“You have to change your attitude from seeing them as just deadbeat inmates,” said Wasi. “I would never have thought I would have come from a place like Camp Gabriels to here, to meet a person like Martha (Swan) or Mr. Richard Louv to be taking in by them and to now be inspiring and engaging young people in the outdoors. Not me. I was a runaway kid growing up in Brooklyn, but there was aside of me that liked to collect tadpoles and run away to Prospect Park. I lost that side before I got into the joint. Then in the joint I could not tell anyone that I liked to see butterflies or caterpillars. They’d beat me up in the back room. So I was like a closet environmentalist. But nurturing that side, while in or transitioning out could make a huge difference in the lives of so many.”
“I feel very heartened that this large group of people came out on a cold and rainy night to hear a conversation that none of us have ever heard before – a conversation that touched on many very sensitive close-to-the-bone issues here in the North Country that I think requires us to search our souls, examine our conscious, and just listen to two men who have had, in a very surprising an unlikely place, a profound impact on one another’s lives,” said Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives! “For it to be so generous in spirit and tone is really wonderful.”
This conversation was followed by ‘Smoke Signals,’ held at Bluseed Studios on September 29 featuring author Martin Lee on the social history of marijuana, and will conclude on October 24, 7:00 pm, back at the Northwoods Inn in Lake Placid, with author Amy Godine’s examination of the political origins of placing penitentiaries in the North Country. Details can be found at John Brown Lives! on Facebook.
Photo: Joe Hackett (standing), and seated (l to r) Martha Swan, Russell Banks, and Brother Yusef Wasi.