Prisons for Sale, Histories Not Included
Reports of immigrant children being detained inside a repurposed Texas Walmart flashed across the nation in early June 2018. As thousands of border crossers found themselves ensnared in an ad hoc network of hastily constructed detention facilities, the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy attracted global condemnation. Though military bases, county jails, federal prisons, and even outdoor tent cities helped confine immigrant parents and their separated children, the unusual sight of a shuttered big-box store being used as a detention center garnered intense curiosity, scrutiny, and shock across the country.
The feeling of shock, of course, was somewhat misplaced, as the U.S. has a history of reusing mothballed physical plants as penal institutions. Wars on Drugs waged at the federal and state levels unleashed a scramble for penal space in the last third of the 20th century. The coincidental convergence of deindustrialization and mass incarceration in the early 1970s gave penitentiary planners a veritable cornucopia of postindustrial structures from which to choose. However, while many Americans could tolerate living near a factory, mine, or mill, most bristled at sharing their community with a prison.
Prisons and Environment in the Adirondacks
As skyrocketing criminal convictions—especially following passage of the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws—filled New York’s penal institutions, the state Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) encountered resistance to opening new penitentiaries in urban and suburban areas. Planners ultimately succumbed to this aggressive NIMBYism, prompting a new search for inexpensive, convertible space away from cities. With their small population, depressed economy, and abundance of abandoned buildings, the isolated towns and villages of the Adirondack Mountains in distant northern New York seemed tailor-made for fast and easy prison building.
In addition to its simultaneous emergence with deindustrialization, the era of mass incarceration also coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement and implementation of new development restrictions in the Adirondack Park. Political leaders and correctional officials seeking to transform the region’s former tuberculosis hospitals, shuttered public schools, closed iron mines, and unused commercial forestland into penitentiaries had to first contend with a sprawling environmental bureaucracy that did not exist when New York built its first Adirondack prison in 1845. Though existing law largely exempted state redevelopment of facilities on public lands from the most stringent environmental rules, penal bureaucrats eager to avoid a fresh round of burdensome NIMBYism grudgingly accepted the participation of area residents, visitors, environmentalists, and regulators in planning new penitentiaries in communities across the Adirondacks from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s.
Environmentalism and Mass Incarceration
Repurposing vacant medical, educational, and industrial facilities built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for modern penal use required more than simply barring the windows and erecting a fence. Unsurprisingly, prison conversion in the Adirondacks created environmental impacts disproportionate to the institutions’ limited square footage. Runoff from excavation and tree removal eroded soil, killed wildlife, damaged wetlands, and befouled drinking water. Moreover, increased traffic, noise, and dust from construction posed threats to quality of life and adjacent property values. Provisioning clean water, sewage, electricity, and other services to the penitentiaries, meanwhile, required complex deals with local municipalities and the building of new infrastructure. Finally, penal expansion exposed residents and visitors to risks previously unknown in their isolated mountain homes, including inmate escapes. Yet, the compilation of exhaustive environmental impact statements often proved to be correctional officials’ least difficult task.
The era of mass incarceration coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement.
State leaders fumed as opposition activists made emergency penitentiary construction a drawn-out, time-consuming affair. Though New York law enfeebled critics from day one, grassroots anti-prison groups forced officials to convene public hearings, launched letter writing campaigns to periodicals and politicians, filed lawsuits, made endless document requests, and staged rowdy protests both inside and outside the region. Nevertheless, even a unified, well-financed, and vocal opposition could not overcome the state’s undisputed right to redevelop its own properties. Opponents’ ultimate failure to stop the prisons, however, did not mean their work had been in vain. Critics’ efforts helped limit the penitentiaries’ impacts and shaped their integration into host communities. In so doing, opponents made significant and lasting contributions to the long-term operation of the very facilities they had labored long and hard to resist.
The opposition left an impressive legacy whose sheer magnitude obscured its original, obstructionist intent. Their high-pressure tactics and lobbying campaigns helped achieve architectural and aesthetic modifications to blur the boundaries between penitentiaries and the unbuilt environment. In particular, opponents cheered acreage reductions to mitigate facilities’ ecological footprints, absorption of unused penal properties into the constitutionally-protected Forest Preserve, preservation of valuable commercial woodlands from prison-induced cutting, protection of a sensitive aquifer, and vegetative screening and miniscule signage to minimize visual impacts. Critics’ biggest victory, however, came with the elimination of plans to construct two additional correctional institutions in the region. Nevertheless, while opponents were largely successful in putting the new penitentiaries out of sight, their unfree occupants, on the other hand, became impossible to miss.
The most ethically dubious concession Corrections officials made to their anti-prison critics-turned-collaborators was the creation of inmate labor crews for the free use of local governments. Seeking harmonious relations between skeptical townspeople and their new penitentiaries, penal bureaucrats gambled that an army of poorly compensated and readily available workers might dampen any lingering opposition. Paid with funds from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and guarded by corrections officers, incarcerated men have labored on conservation and public works projects across the region for nearly half a century. They have built and refurbished recreational infrastructure, hiking trails, and parks; renovated government buildings, schools, and athletic fields; and, assisted with flood control, fought forest fires, and cleared storm debris, among other activities. Lightly populated localities with few taxpayers, in particular, have relied heavily on prisoners to complete vital tasks that funding shortages might otherwise have prevented.
Though many locals had dreaded the arrival of non-white, urban inmates to their lily-white wilderness enclaves, the state’s penal labor program helped thin the ranks of the opposition. The joint DEC-DOCS initiative generated significant savings for taxpayers and helped restore environments opponents feared prisons might destroy. Further, by deploying unfree, non-white prisoners on work projects in affluent white communities, the program helped reinforce racist social hierarchies to which many in the region—visitors, residents, and environmentalists alike—often subscribed. So long as prisons could not be seen and their primarily African American and Hispanic inhabitants—performing tasks designed to enhance the lives and leisure of well-to-do whites—remained mired in service roles, individuals and organizations once fiercely opposed to penal expansion could live with penitentiaries in their midst.
Prison Closures and Historical Memory
Fast forward to 2018. As the world’s attention focused on the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border—including that renovated Walmart—2,000 miles to the north, along the U.S.-Canadian frontier, preparations were underway to sell and repurpose a once-jampacked Adirondack prison. Located a couple miles from the Quebec border in northern Franklin County, Chateaugay Correctional Facility had opened atop 35 acres of once-productive farmland back in 1990. It operated in the tiny hamlet for nearly a quarter century, providing addiction treatment services to nonviolent incarcerated men and stable jobs for area residents. Twenty-four years later, declining crime and incarceration rates in New York made Chateaugay obsolete. Four years after its 2014 closure, New York put the facility on the auction block, and a Montreal developer planning to convert it to a summer camp won the complex for $600,000. That deal fell through in September, and the future of Chateaugay’s former prison—along with the community itself—remains murky.
Rapidly repurposing a shuttered penitentiary without attending to its history carries significant moral and ethical implications. This is especially true in the Adirondacks, where knowledge and memory of the region’s long and tangled environmental history with mass incarceration remains a blur in the public consciousness. Why? Most obviously, the prisons opened, opposition groups disbanded, conflicts petered out, and former critics accepted their new reality. At the same time, opponents became victims of their own success as penitentiaries that operated largely out of sight departed many people’s minds. Indeed, the prisons are so well hidden that many visitors and residents remain unaware of their presence. If their mere existence remains a mystery, how can we possibly understand how and why they got there in the first place?
Unfortunately, politics has also played a central role in maintaining public ignorance of the North Country’s history with the penal system. Corrections is a pillar of the regional economy, providing well-paying jobs to tens of thousands of area residents, sustenance to their families, vital support to service sector businesses, and inmate labor crews that still play a pivotal role in Adirondack communities. Asking questions about the prisons’ origins and development would help uncomfortable truths—especially concerning racial inequities and injustice in the criminal justice system—bubble to the surface, potentially threatening the livelihoods of individuals, families, and communities whose dependence on a steady flow of inmates and public resources remains as strong as ever. Indeed, as both the state prison population and crime rates continue to drop, the imperative not to ask these questions only intensifies. The prisons’ closure, while a sure sign of progress, unfortunately does threaten the remaining physical reminders of this powerful and important story.
What can be done both to ensure struggling communities like Chateaugay can wring new life out of their old penitentiary while simultaneously educating the public about the hidden history living and breathing all around them? First, if a new buyer cannot be found for the facility in Chateaugay, it may be instructive to convert the facility as a museum dedicated to interpreting the nearly two-century-long history of mass incarceration in northern New York. Second, a network of historical markers could help memorialize both the struggles surrounding penal growth and the hundreds of locales whose built and unbuilt environments constitute the unspoken legacy of decades of poorly paid inmate labor. Third, and finally, a public school curriculum that includes a strong emphasis on the centrality of corrections to the region’s historical development is crucial to the furtherance of a society dedicated to social, racial, economic, and environmental justice. In the not-too-distant future, one hopes the Walmart-turned-detention center in Texas will face a re-repurposing. May its sibling institution in faraway Chateaugay help to lead the way.
Featured image: The former Chateaugay Correctional Facility in Franklin County, New York, which was sold at auction earlier this summer in a deal that fell through last month. Photo from the New York State Office of General Services.
Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Queensborough Community College/CUNY and a visiting instructor in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His research focuses on the environmental and social history of mass incarceration. His first book, Prisonland: Environmentalism and the Politics of Mass Incarceration in Northern New York, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press. He lives in New York City. Website. Twitter. Contact.