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.