Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Prisons and the North Country: A complex relationship

ray brook prison sign

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.

Saranac Lake ice palace

Construction last year on the Saranac Lake ice palace. Photo by Brandon Loomis.

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.

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Tim Rowland

Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.




7 Responses

  1. Alan Fisher says:

    Only time will tell if this works. Unfortunately a few bad apples can spoil the best of program plans. This is the same whether in or out of a prison environment. For some reason we feel it unrighteous to come down hard on those who have a choice and still go bad. We deflect and call it racism rather than the worst of human nature that it truly is. Perhaps the prisons wouldn’t be proportionally out of balance if the prisoners themselves were less prejudiced and could safely be housed together. I can’t help but believe we perpetuate racism by constantly calling it to mind for every ill.

  2. Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

    Being a mom has made me more succinct, lol. I had a lot in mind for a comment but am gonna focus on the last paragraph to note that I think some of Prof Halls points in the book (have read it enthusiastically) are quite lost with this article. Per your last paragraph:

    “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.”

    This is utter conjecture – a feel-good fantasy unsupported by a quote or any evidence that gives someone something nice to think about the very *cough* not nice concept of barely-paid or unpaid prison labor. Again, some of us recognize that the labor in question is close to or equivalent of slavery. See the film 13th to get started, or read “The New Jim Crow.”

    Prof Hall writes his book with a deep understanding of systemic racism, which, to borrow a term that the right likes to throw at me, “doesn’t care about our feelings” or what we imagine.

    I actually appreciate a bunch that we’re acknowledging systemic issues here. But we can’t sooth ourselves by theorizing that prisoners just loved their time participating in jobs we forced them to do that only benefit ourselves. It’s a bad look, as the kids say.

    • JB says:

      Vanessa, I don’t want to intrude upon your new (:)) wisdom, but I must say, you have made a very excellent point! In the terms of Michel Foucault, overt public displays of punishment (in contemporary times, prison labor or police brutality) can lead towards a public heroization of the subjugated. That hero status, Foucault contends, can create sufficient opposition to sovereign authority that it serves to reform, or even end, the punishment. However, extending that to modernity as per Giorgio Agamben, this sympathy evolves a double-edge: the hero becomes the “sacred man”–one who can no longer be punished by law, but who is also no longer afforded full (extralegal) protections of the dignified citizen. Further, as per Zygmont Bauman, they become the “ultimate stranger”–both inexhaustibly enticing and inexorably feared–to a postmodern society that, in the aftermath of the failed human project to order the unorderable, becomes increasingly driven by individualistic consumerism, ephemeral fears, and fears of the ephemeral itself. Thus, we all may eventually become free; but free to do what? Visit an ice palace, built by (literal or figurative) prisoners, to see it before it melts?

  3. louis curth says:

    Please don’t overlook the valuable contribution of inmate labor crews who have assisted forest rangers over the years with forest fire suppression efforts throughout our region. Moriah Shock was among those frequently providing valuable inmate labor crews to help the rangers.

    Appreciation for all fire-fighters doing this grueling work is generally in short supply after the flames are extinguished, and that would certainly include thanking those inmate crews who helped out.

    Perhaps, as the need for more fire-fighters increases due to climate change, we could recognize inmates fire experience by certifying them for future job opportunities in this field.

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “the labor in question is close to or equivalent of slavery…”

    It seems to me that prisoners would welcome getting away from their cages, going out into the world, limited though it be, and being more than happy to help build castles whether they be ice or stone. Anything to break away from the drab of a cage! As Louis says “don’t overlook….”, to which I would add…the positive aspects of prison labor. It could be worse! Just imagine if they privatized all prisons. They wouldn’t need a ‘physical labor’ work force anymore! Now that would be slavery!

    • Boreas says:

      Charlie,

      I too was always under the impression outdoor work was voluntary and for inmates with good behavior. They weren’t chain gangs from the deep south a’la Cool Hand Luke.

  5. Worth Gretter says:

    The story of the Mariah Shock inmates working on the ice palace is told brilliantly in the movie “Ice Palace – A Love Letter”.

    It premiered in Saranac Lake in 2019, as told in
    https://www.saranaclakewintercarnival.com/news/2019/10/world-premiere-ice-palace-love-letter-movie

    You can order a copy on DVD at http://www.icealovestory.com/

    I highly recommend it, and have given copies to several friends. Seeing the whole story on video will give you insights that you won’t get from all the discussion presently taking place!

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