Asking tough questions about North Country prisons

The chow hall at Moriah Shock (Natasha Haverty)

The North Country’s largest single economic force is the local, state and federal prison system which has evolved here over the last quarter century.

Despite the closure of two facilities — in Gabriels and Lyon Mountain — corrections work drives much of our regional economy from Watertown to the Tri-Lakes to the Champlain Valley.

Societies need prisons, but in a part of the world where prison work and prosperity are closely intertwined its important to keep asking tough questions about the morality and policy ideas that shape the system.

This week, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report — the first that I know of — looking in depth at the widespread use of solitary confinement statewide, and here in our region.

Much of the report focuses on Upstate Correctional facility in Malone, which has more than 1,000 “special housing unit” beds where inmates are kept in what the NYCLU calls “extreme isolation.”

“Where we live, it’s a large farming community,” said former DOCs counselor Dan Benware, a Malone native who worked at Upstate Correctional.

“We have laws on the books against cattle being confined to these huge, huge barns. The Department of Agriculture watches for that type of abuse,” Benware told the NYCLU.  “Yet when it comes to human beings, we are keeping them in cages that wouldn’t be fit for our cows.”

The report should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking seriously about our region, our economy, and the kind of work that many of us and our neighbors do behind bars. That doesn’t mean everyone will (or should) agree with the findings in the report.

“It is our duty to protect those in our custody, as well as our employees,” argued DOCS commissioner Brian Fischer.

“If we fail to protect everyone in our facilities, we fail to maintain the task that has been placed in our trust. The use of disciplinary segregation is important to the overall well-being of any of our prisons. But I also recognize the need to constantly review our policies to determine if what we’re doing is effective and beneficial to everyone.”

It’s refreshing that state officials appear to be receiving this highly critical report with an open mind.

When our collective livelihood depends in large measure on the practice of locking up other people — often people from very different cultures, races and ethnic backgrounds — it’s important to listen closely when moral and ethical concerns are raised.

Check out my story about the NYCLU’s report here.  You’ll find links to the full report, and to the reply from the Department of Correctional Services.

It’s also interesting that over the last week we had two stories on NCPR looking at aspects of the North Country’s prison system, from the ambitious SHOCK incarceration program in Moriah to the solitary program in Malone.

Give these a listen and then join the conversation.  What do you think about the industry that so many of us rely on?  Is it good for our communities?  Good for corrections officers and their families?  Good for inmates.  Comments welcome below.

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7 Comments on “Asking tough questions about North Country prisons”

  1. Walker says:

    Just to add a global perspective, it’s worth noting that the U.S. has a far higher proportion of it’s population in jail than other nations do. This is a selection of nations and the prisoners per 100,000 population. We’re number one!

    730 – United States
    522 – Russia
    391 – El Salvador
    333 – Iran
    331 – Thailand
    310 – South Africa
    303 – Puerto Rico
    297 – French Guiana
    295 – Chile
    236 – Israel
    190 – New Zealand
    181 – Colombia
    176 – Peru
    174 – Turkey
    163 – Jamaica
    160 – Saudi Arabia
    156 – Great Britain
    152 – Spain
    129 – Australia
    122 – China
    122 – Vietnam
    117 – Canada
    115 – France
    109 – Italy
    101 – Greece
    101 – Iraq
    99 – Northern Ireland
    97 – Belgium
    95 – Ireland
    87 – Angola
    87 – Netherlands
    83 – Germany
    76 – Switzerland
    74 – Denmark
    73 – Norway
    70 – Sweden
    59 – Finland
    55 – Japan

    (Wikipedia)

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  2. Mervel says:

    I would like to look at the long term impacts of prisons on a community, economically, socially and spiritually.

    I have been a supporter in general just because we are poor have high unemployment and need good paying, good benefit jobs.

    However you look at the long term impacts of what is essentially a very negative industry, what is the real effect of having your whole community basically be deeply involved in the warehousing of human beings in less than humane conditions? It has to have an impact on families on our culture in general?

    But then again 11% unemployment has a very negative impact on our families also. I don’t have a good answer.

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  3. Walker says:

    However you look at the long term impacts of what is essentially a very negative industry, what is the real effect of having your whole community basically be deeply involved in the warehousing of human beings in less than humane conditions? It has to have an impact on families on our culture in general?

    But then again 11% unemployment has a very negative impact on our families also. I don’t have a good answer.

    Mervel, if we dramatically reduced our prison population, we could spend the savings on infrastructure repair, education, you name it. It would still create jobs, only they’d be way more productive jobs.

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  4. mervel says:

    I think in theory yes.

    I think in practical terms the North Country would just get more poor and have even higher unemployment. Thousands of individuals work for prisons in the North Country, if the state closed those prisons, do you think they would come back and provide thousands of new jobs building infrastructure up here?

    However, the overall societal costs of having huge prison population probably outweigh the benefits to the North Country of these jobs.

    It is a tough deal all around.

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  5. Walker says:

    I agree, if they suddenly decided to set all non-violent petty criminals free, the odds of the savings in prison salaries being spent on the North Country is slim to nil.

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  6. mervel says:

    We do have a history of being a place to re-charge etc, plus we have an institutional history which still marginally exists with our state psychiatric facility and state sex offender facilities in Ogdensburg.

    One thing that we do desperately need as a country and as a state, is rehabilitation beds for a variety of addictions. If the state would agree to look at offering rehab to addicts who desire it in the North Country as prisons close I think that would be a great benefit to all. Many many addicts desperately want to get clean, but there are pathetically few re-hab beds available, (unless you are rich). I think the state could play a real role in reducing crime, reducing death, reducing health care costs, etc by refurbishing these prisons into re-habilitation units and really opening them up to all addicts who want them and who cannot afford private re-hab.

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  7. mervel says:

    I think very few of the guys in prison today are there for petty drug possession charges. Now I think many are there for charges that stem from drug use and addiction however.

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