The Adirondacks in Northern New York covers approximately 5,000 square miles. Widely known for its natural beauty, recreation opportunities and tourism, it may surprise many of those travelers to learn that the Adirondacks’ trails and amenities are intrinsically connected to New York’s carceral history.
In A Prison In the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country (Univ. of Mass. Press, 2020), Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. traces the planning, construction, and operation of penitentiaries in five Adirondack communities – Dannemora, Ray Brook, Gabriels, Lyon Mountain, and Tupper Lake – between 1840 and the early 2010s to show the intersections between the environment and mass incarceration.
Hall’s own personal history adds an interesting aspect to his narrative. His father worked for the New York prison system from 1973 to 1998, mostly at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. He states that “the rhythms of the prison system became natural to our family, just as they did for so many other families in towns and villages across the Adirondacks.”
With A Prison in the Woods, Hall seeks to fill a gap in the historiography. He argues that until recently scholars have paid little attention to the connections between prisons and their surrounding environment. He states that “while mass incarceration unfolded at the local level, examining the broad historical forces that gave rise to the carceral state offers a deeper understanding of the ties that bind prisons and their environments.”
Hall demonstrates that lawmakers planned and opened penal institutions in communities across Northern New York as a remedy for overcrowding in existing prisons and as a panacea to the Adirondacks economic woes. He argues that “the environment played a central role in the planning, construction, and operation of penitentiaries in New York’s North Country.” The Adirondack environment became a product of both careful environmental planning and the penitentiary as incarcerated men “built roads, blazed hiking trails, constructed ski runs, fought forest fires, controlled flooding, and renovated a panoply of public spaces, including churches, libraries, schools, and government offices.”
Hall’s organization strengthens his argument. In his introduction, he lays out the origin of Adirondack Park Agency, the growth of the New York penal system, lays out the land of New York’s North Country as contested terrain, discusses the simultaneous emergence of mass incarceration and the modern environmental movement and lays out fundamental tensions in the communities in which these prisons would be built. He states, “While year round residents understood the park as a home and workplace, affluent homeowners and visitors valued the region for health, leisure, and recreation. Wealthy locals thus deemed penitentiaries incompatible with the park’s history as an enclave for outdoor play.”
His first chapter focuses on Dannemora, home of the Clinton Correctional Facility. Hall discusses the history of Clinton State Prison and the deeply entrenched dependency in this system of incarcerated labor/production in prison towns. Hall then turns to the penitentiaries of Ray Brook, the influence of Stop the Olympic Prison (STOP), the impact of Olympic Planning at Lake Placid, and the town’s dependency on incarcerated labor. He states, “In a region battered by poverty and unemployment, and during an era of austerity, deficits, and disinvestment in social programs, prison labor filled a gaping void for the area’s vulnerable residents.”
According to Hall, STOP charged that the Ray Brook facility was “symptomatic of the nation’s intensifying addiction to imprisonment” and were deeply concerned that the facility could aggravate class and local tensions in Ray Brook. Ultimately, STOP felt that “The Ray Brook prison’s long term viability thus depended on an unrelenting churn of men of color into federal confinement. Black and Brown New Yorkers would help pay for Lake Placid’s Olympics with imprisonment, isolation, family separation, and income loss, among other burdens.” The effectiveness of STOP’s campaign varied, but it did force planners to take note as STOP warned that protests could tarnish the celebratory spirit of the Lake Placid Olympics.
Chapter 3 examines the penitentiary, political grappling, and the rise of Citizens Against More Prisons in the Adirondacks (CAMPA) and its “uniquely racist brand of environmentalism.” CAMPA, a home grown Adirondack anti-prison group founded by Diane Peterson, reinforced the idea that all incarcerated men were prone to violence and represented a threat to local affluent homeowners, tourism, and outdoor recreation. Many proponents of CAMPA compared incarcerated men to animals and toxic environments. Focusing on protecting affluent homeowners, CAMPA’s dogma “highlighted people of color as a unique source of harm whose exclusion was key to the community’s survival.”
Turning to the penitentiary at Lyon Mountain, Hall argues that, in the wake of corporate mining misrule and environmental damage, “Lyon Mountain homeowners would measure the prison’s value not by its ability to revive a weak economy, but through its potential to restore their damaged environment.” The prison (and incarcerated workers) completed projects which Hall argues would never have been completed otherwise, demonstrating the entrenched dependency of the town on the labor of incarcerated men in prison.
Chapter 5 focuses on Tupper Lake where Hall argues that, “Amid predictions of catastrophic harm to environmental and public health, the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), for the first time in the history of Adirondack prisons, abandoned a project in the name of environmental protection” and that “Corrections unwittingly endorsed the notion that penitentiaries did not belong in Adirondack Park.”
In the conclusion, Hall wrestles with an important question – which chapters of North Country’s prison history should or should not be publicly memorialized and how? Powerfully, he states, “Just as the area’s prisons never operated in isolation from the local environment, it is impossible to either live or play in the Adirondacks without touching the handiwork of incarcerated men.”
To construct his narrative, Hall pulls from David and Edgardo Rothman’s work on the history of prisons and Jonathan Anzalone’s work on New York’s North Country; he also enters into a conversation with Connie Chiang’s work on the interconnectedness of prisons and the environment.
To construct his narrative, Hall notably pulls from The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (1997, edited by David Rothman), Jonathan Anzalone’s Battles of the North Country (2018), and Connie Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire (2020). He also draws considerable evidence from articles published in the Adirondack Daily Experience, Chateaguay Record, Lake Placid News, North Country Catholic, North Countryman, Plattsburgh Republican, Press Republican, and the Tupper Lake Free Press. Hall also draws from laws, government memos, notes from public hearings, correspondence court rulings, and permit applications.
Hall’s nuanced discussion of race adds weight to his narrative. For example, he states that over three quarters of the 2.3 million people were incarcerated across the country by the beginning of the early twenty first century; nearly three-quarters of the incarcerated population were “people of color from primarily low-income African American and Latino urban communities.” The trend towards mass incarceration- especially incarceration miles away from prisoners’ hometowns – resulted in “incalculable harm on New York’s communities of color” as fathers, marital partners, and breadwinners were sent to North Country prisons.
Hall uses this language of exile in discussions of incarceration. He states “convicted men exiled to the Adirondacks arrived in a remote, conservative, low-income, and predominantly white region.” Throughout his book, he showcases this profound tension between affluent white homeowners, low-income white residents, and incarcerated men. Time and again, he makes the point that wealthy homeowners deemed prisons incompatible with Adirondack wilderness, but only until prisons resulted in a servile labor force that reaffirmed the affluence of those wealthy homeowners. His work shows a deep tension between the Adirondacks as a beautiful and wild tourism destination and the Adirondacks as a “prisonland.”
While much of his work is an outside look at the political grappling and press around the planning, construction, and operation of prisons in the Adirondacks, Hall does describe the situation inside the prisons. He invests incarcerated men with agency. He discusses the ways in which incarcerated men fought for small amounts of control within a situation largely outside of their control. In a discussion about FCI Ray Brook, he states, “Imprisoned men railed against narcotics and sentencing laws by engaging in work or meal strikes and setting small fires.” He details the fights, suicide attempts, violence, and fires within these facilities. At times, he does feature the voices of the incarcerated throughout A Prison in the Woods. In Chapter Two, for example, he includes a section where incarcerated men praise the facility at Camp Adirondack. Throughout his narrative, he makes the point that these incarcerated men are hardworking and worthy of dignity and recognition.
A Prison in the Woods’ significance is two-fold. Mass incarceration was a nationwide phenomenon. On one hand, Hall’s work shows that the daily functioning of the carceral state could not be understood without a look at the local context. With each chapter, Hall conducts a “town and village level analysis” which “illuminates how non-human nature figured in the planning, construction, and operation of correctional facilities.”
Perhaps more importantly, Hall’s work is significant in that it publicly recognizes the labor of imprisoned men in building and maintaining the Adirondack environment and thus “acknowledges the collective debt every resident and visitor owes to the primarily African American and Latino men whose hard work continues to help preserve the beauty and majesty of New York’s great north woods.” A Prison in the Woods is a fascinating and worthwhile account of New York’s North Country.