Why we don’t talk about prisons in the North Country

Outdoor guide Joe Hackett, novelist Russell Banks, and outdoor reducator and former NYS inmate Brother Yusef Wasi talking at a John Brown lives event in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Brian Mann

Outdoor guide and former corrections worker Joe Hackett, novelist Russell Banks, and outdoor educator and former NYS inmate Brother Yusef Abdul-Wasi Burgess talking at a John Brown lives event in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Brian Mann

Here’s one of the raw truths of being a reporter.  Sometimes you tell stories — hopefully rich, involved, compelling stories — and it’s like dropping a stone down a deep well.

Maybe you hear a little distant plink.  Sometimes not even that.

American democracy, after all, is by definition a crowd-sourced affair.

People, not journalists, decide what issues will matter, what concerns will float to the top of the public discourse.  And so it should be.

But that doesn’t mean that a guy like me can’t occasionally shake his fist at the zeitgeist, lamenting those issues that get lifted up and those that get dropped by the wayside.

A case in point is the future of the North Country’s prison industry.  This morning, Natasha Haverty looks at one side-effect of our incarceration boom, the dramatic rise in the number of elderly and even dying inmates behind bars.

Over the last year, as part of our Prison Time media Project series, NCPR has dug in-depth into questions like this one, exploring the region’s four-decade long embrace of incarceration and corrections as a cornerstone industry and a way of life.

We’ve written articles, published on-line histories, broadcast numerous stories, many of which have aired nationally on NPR.  And that work has sparked some discussion, some exchange of ideas.

We’re heartened particularly to see that the group John Brown Lives is moving forward with a series of public discussions of the prison industry.  But the truth is that this remains a largely unacknowledged elephant in the room.

While folks in the North Country fiercely debate tourism railroads and launch massive ad campaigns over 200-acre land swaps —  filling letter to the editor columns, crowding meeting halls, and lighting up blog posts — there is almost no meaningful dialogue about our prison industry.

To be clear, I think those other issues matter, too.  It’s the silence about prisons I’m questioning, not the debate over those other things.

And this silence persists, despite the fact that our corrections system has arguably a much larger impact on our economy, our culture, and the quality of life in our communities.

It is also an industry that comes fraught with moral and ethical gray zones.  What does it mean for a culture of largely white rural New Yorkers to earn their livelihoods locking up a culture of predominately minority urban New Yorkers?

What does it mean when our economic well-being becomes entangled with things like the controversial war on drugs, policing practices like ‘stop and frisk’, and the New York’s complicated racial politics?

The silence that shrouds our prison-centered way of life is particularly odd, given the fact that the industry is changing fast, with correctional facilities closing and prison guards from our region struggling with new uncertainties.

But maybe it’s not so odd.  I’ve spoken to many corrections officers who say they’re proud of their work, and feel that they’re providing an important public service, but they also don’t have much interest in talking about their trade.

Life behind bars — for COs as well as inmates — is just too messy, and at times too ugly.  Better to leave that stuff at work.

Similarly, many politicians in the North Country understand that basing our economic well-being on prisons and on policy decisions in Albany is a tricky and unsatisfying and morally ambiguous formula for the future.

But they just don’t see many options.  And they don’t see much value in talking about it.

Here’s why I think this discussion does matter.

For one thing, it’s time to ask whether our North Country prisons are actually doing what society wants them to do.

Do Dannemora and Ogdensburg Correctional and FCI Ray Brook actually help “correct” inmates, so that when they return to society they have the skills that they (and we) need?

Studies show that a huge proportion of inmates suffer mental illness, drug addiction, or serious physical ailments.  Are we using their time behind bars to help them confront those problems?

On the other side of the equation, if we are going to steadily dismantle the North Country’s prison industry one facility at a time, don’t the region’s communities deserve to have a long-range plan, a discussion of the cumulative regional impacts?

As the state shuts down corrections facilities here, with two more slated to go next year, and hires fewer-and-fewer corrections officers, surely there should be some larger discussion of reinvestment, re-purposing, and economic revitalization?

The bottom line?  I think we’ve all made it a habit not to talk about this particular industry, this particular facet of North Country life.  The prisons themselves are often located in places that are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

I think it’s time to rethink that.  It’s time to ask questions, even when they don’t have easy or comfortable answers.

It’s time for community leaders and corrections officers and unions and, yes, even inmates themselves and their families who visit our region, to talk more openly about prisons and their role in our towns and their future.

The Prison Time Media Project will wrap up in a couple of months.  My hope as a journalist is that the conversation will only just be getting started.



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Support for Prison Time

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the NY Council for the Humanities and by numerous individual donors via Kickstarter. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.