I’m currently editing a manuscript by a North Country native whose views on climate change have been shaped both by his role as a military scientist and by extensive time in the woods beginning as a boy in his father’s Adirondack hunting camp.
Among the delightful vignettes is a bone-chilling recollection of the fireworks and ice palace on the shores of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. Was the forty-five minute show worth the ensuing six hours it took to get back some semblance of inner warmth? But of course.
Construction will soon be underway for this year’s ice palace, but going forward one of the more interesting angles of the work may be lost. In the past — interrupted by the pandemic — much of the work has been performed by inmates of the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility.
Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr., history professor and author of “A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country,” notes that the story of the Adirondacks can’t be told without noting the significance of prison work details.
That story has an obvious dark side, Hall writes, to wit, impoverished men of color imprisoned on racially tilted drug laws working under the watchful eye of white overseers for the benefit of wealthy seekers of North Country playgrounds.
Adirondack prisons have always had that feel, haven’t they? That they have had less to do with crime and punishment than as a jobs program for local residents, a pacifier to take their minds off the work lost to environmental protections, real or imagined.
This is changing as the Hochul Administration is continuing to close upstate prisons, both for the moral realization that sentencing has been both exceedingly harsh and racially biased, and the practical reason that warehousing human beings is an expensive proposition.
Moriah Shock is one of the prisons tagged for closure, even though it’s a bit different. Here, inmates can trade three years of hard time for six months of genuine rehabilitation in a boot-camp setting — including work on Adirondack projects including the ice palace, maintenance of parks, boat launches and the historic Essex County fairgrounds, and trail-building.
Unlike the abusive, mirrored-sunglass visages of the movies, the correction officers take an active role and interest in the inmates’ lives. Unlike traditional prisons, Moriah Shock doesn’t have a perimeter fence.
Hochul has announced a jails-to-jobs initiative, which locals hope will preserve Moriah Shock in at least some fashion. Perhaps Moriah Shock can represent the tail end of the old way and the beginning of the new.
Professor Hall’s points cannot be avoided. Yet I imagine more than a few inmates, on their release, have gone back home and reported with some degree of pride that they helped build an ice palace. We can’t undo the past, but we can appreciate history, and — as we view the Winter Carnival or hike Poke-o-Moonshine or the new trails emanating from the Van Hoevenberg sports complex — appreciate those who labored there as part of that history.
Photo at top by Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s weekly Explore More newsletter. Click here to sign up.