America’s prison time

[soundcloud id='75475529']

[Correction:  Prison Time airs first on Thursday -- not Tuesday.  Thanks to Natasha Haverty, who's helping to produce the series, for noticing the error.]

In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through the now-famous “Rockefeller” drug laws, helping to launch the national war on drugs.

In the decades that followed, America’s prison population surged from roughly 330,000 to more than 2 million inmates.   The

Inmates at Moriah Shock Correctional Facility in Essex County, NY (Photo: Natasha Haverty)

“tough on crime” era changed the way we think about crime and punishment.

It also sparked a massive wave of prison construction, transforming rural communities across the US.  Here in the North Country,

Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY (Photo: Natasha Haverty)

the incarceration industry — including county, state and Federal lock-ups — is now the single largest employer.

Beginning on Thursday of next week, we’ll begin a year-long exploration of the four-decade legacy of the Rock laws, here in our region, across New York state and nationwide.

We’ll be partnering with NPR and other public radio stations and we hope to include you in the conversation.  What do you think about the Rock laws, and efforts to reform them?

It’s the Prison Time Radio Project, debuting next Thursday right here on NCPR.

34 Comments on “America’s prison time”

  1. The Original Larry says:

    Didn’t work on drugs, won’t work on guns. You can’t legislate away societal problems.

  2. mervel says:

    I hope you take a look at the social impacts on communities of having so many individuals working in what is essentially a violent industry and yet the economic importance of those very good jobs (in comparison to the private jobs in the area).

  3. mervel says:

    OS yes the thing is though, the drop in crime in the US pretty much coincides with the increase in locking people up.

  4. PNElba says:

    Nope. The drop in crime correlates almost perfectly with removal of lead from gasoline.

  5. mervel says:

    No no I controlled for that.

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It would be interesting to know how the increase in supposed good jobs has affected the communities near NorthCountry prisons over time. From what I have seen the communities where prisons have been located haven’t done better than other communities and may have done worse.

  7. Newt says:

    “Better” or “worse” in what way, Knuck? Malone, the prison capitol of the North Country has a thriving strip full of fast food and big box stores. I assume the housing market is fairly strong there also.
    Other ways of measuring “better” and “worse”, of course.

    The backbone of Saranac Lake’s economy (though no one likes admits it) is the two prisons in Raybrook. And Saranac Lake is generally thought to be a fairly decent place to live.

    The issues and ethics around the prison “industry” are complicated, and not easy to make a judgement about.

  8. Paul says:

    Knuck, I think Newt is right. One of the few growing areas, highlighted here and in other media, is the area around Saranac Lake, specifically the area between LP ans SL. The places near prisons growing the other places shrinking or growing slower.

  9. Paul says:

    “though no one likes admits it”

    No one?

    Newt, I know lots of folks around SL that admit this???

  10. JDM says:


    “From what I have seen the communities where prisons have been located haven’t done better than other communities and may have done worse.”

    Do you have any quantifiable evidence to support this?

    Didn’t think so.

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Jeez, I just asked a question that might be worth exploring.

    JDM, no I dont have any evidence. That is why I asked the question. But I have driven through many communities that host prisons and they dont look all that great. Of course, most towns in the NC arent as vibrant as they were 40 years ago.

    While Saranac Lake may have prison jobs it also has other things going on. Fort Ann and Whitehall, hmm, not so much.

  12. Rancid Crabtree says:

    The State and Federal gov’ts have pretty much killed off most of our once core industries like logging, mining and agriculture. What’s left? What would Malone be without the prisons? What would Ogdensburg look like? I think the 2 issues brought up, the effect of the prisons and drug laws, are 2 different issues. Logging and mining are done. Agriculture is teetering on the brink of failure. What else do we have to turn to?

  13. erb says:

    Looking forward to this series. I am very curious to hear what you have found in your reporting.

  14. Pete Klein says:

    Prison jobs are good job? Making money off of crime improves the local economy?
    Is anyone listening to what is being said?
    If that is truly a philosophy, then I would guess what we need to do is promote more crimes so everyone can make more money.
    Maybe we need to thank criminals for being criminals.

  15. Peter Hahn says:

    Back to the Rockefeller drug laws. They were not very effective deterrents but cost the tax payers a huge amount of money. They probably ruined many lives unnecessarily. There are probably better ways for the state top ump money into the poor rural north country.

  16. Walker says:

    “I assume the housing market is fairly strong [in Malone] also.”

    All I know is that when we moved up here seven years ago, housing in the Malone area was unbelievably cheap– almost half the price of comparable houses in the Saranac Lake area.

    “The backbone of Saranac Lake’s economy (though no one likes admits it) is the two prisons in Raybrook.”

    Compared to AMA, AMC and NCCC and Trudeau Institute? I’d like to see a source on that.

  17. Walker says:

    (Not saying you’re wrong. But it’s hard to find info on those prison payrolls.)

  18. Peter Hahn says:

    Here in sunny Ray Brook there is the DEC, the State troopers, and the APA in addition to the two prisons – one of which is Federal.

  19. Mervel says:

    It is hard to track as employees live all over the nc. As a single industry though I think it is the largest in the nc. The jobs are good in the sense of reasonable pay and good benefits. However consider the work. I think it is hard on your well being to work in the field your view of humanity changes. So if a whole community is dependent on that I don’t think it is good in the long run.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think Mervel touches on something that isn’t easily quantifiable like the number of jobs and the rate of pay. How does it affect a community to have a change in the type of jobs? What happens to the community when people go from being loggers, and farmers, and small store owners, and government employees of various kinds to being much more heavily skewed to government work and specifically the kind of regimented work that being a prison guard is?

    Does that change affect the community? Does the change in the community become a sustaining cycle which drives out young people with less regimented ideas?

    If you spend any time at all in a place you begin to feel the vibe the place has. Mill towns have a certain vibe. College towns have a different vibe. Same with prison towns. Seems like that is part of what Brian is trying to parse out. I’ll be interested to hear more.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Another aspect of the NY prison system is that it is really very much like the Soviet Gulag system in that prisoners are often jailed a full days drive away from their home communities in a landscape completely foreign to them and their families. And since prisoners tend to come primarily from the lowest socio-economic groups how does the difficulty and cost of travel affect the families of the inmates and their chances of re-integrating into a community in a productive fashion when the inmate is released?

  22. Mervel says:

    It is true a high % of the inmates are from the city and only particular parts of the city. Also it is more than just a regimented job. Prisons run on power, violence, and control. That is the nature of the business. So what does that do to a family and community to have whole groups of people spend their lives and careers inside of those walls? Some people can handle it, some can’t. We need these guys and we need prisons but the concentrated impact needs to be studied.

  23. erb says:

    If we want to look at the effects on communities we have to keep in mind that COs might commute 30, 50 or more miles as opportunities open up in different facilities. So it’s not like the local convenience store where economic and social impacts are more clear.

  24. Newt says:

    When we moved to SL in ’81, the economy was about half of what it is now. The Raybrook state complex, Trudeau Institute, Paul Smiths, and whatever they called AMC back then were here, and the storefronts were still half vacant, Rt. 86 outskirts had nothing like today except a few abandoned buildings from the good old pre-TB cure days. The change began after the prisons were built. AMC would no doubt be a lot smaller were it not for the prisons. I don’t know how many are employed at the State and Federal prisons, my guess would be between 200-300. All are good-paying jobs, and figure the multiplier effect from this in terms of economic impact. A CO in Ray Brook or Malone gets paid the same as one in Manhattan or Long Island would, one much-overlooked reason why there are so many jails up here and relatively few down here.

    For all the unfairness of keeping jails distant from families, you don’t here about downstate communities begging for prisons. I would be interested to see what happened if the state decided to open one in, say, Westchester ,or even the Bronx, where the inmates’ families could visit them more often.

    Lake Placid is a world unto itself, Saranac Lake does have other economic resources (among them being an affordable bedroom community for Placid), the bio-techs, DEC, State Police, APA, offices, and servicing the millionaires’ and billionaires’ camps on the lakes.

    Tupper Lake has Sunmount and prison jobs in Raybrook and Malone. Take away the prison jobs and …..

    Not to say economic support of communities justifies locking up people unfairly. It does not. But it’s more complicated than that.

  25. tootightmike says:

    The Rockefeller drug laws were put together by folks who didn’t bother to do the math. Between the staggering costs of housing inmates, and the everlasting damage done to whole communities, we have dug a hole and buried our state in deep debt….and there is no payback. The economic benefit to the North Country is a pittance by comparison, and a shame.

  26. tootightmike says:

    Prison jobs, like defense jobs, do not create, they do not produce. There is no product…only cost.

  27. Paul says:

    Tootight, very true.

    This is interesting:


    We better make some space in prison if we can get this sorted out.

  28. Rancid Crabtree says:

    “Another aspect of the NY prison system is that it is really very much like the Soviet Gulag system…”

    Come on Knuckle! What, we should house a criminal where he wants to be? Why not just put a monitor on his ankle and let him stay home?

    Sorry man, but that’s part of the whole punishment thing.

  29. mervel says:

    tootight I don’t totally agree with that statement.

    We need prisons, every society that has ever existed has needed prisons. With all of the talk about the numerous murders that take place in the US I think we all realize the need to incarcerate people who cannot or will not or do not have the capacity to live by societies rules and must be removed from society for our sake.

    There are very few people in prison today for simple drug possession, today the prison population is made up of larger dealers (and we should look at that), killers, thieves, sex offenders (a lot of those), men who beat their wives, people who kill others during assaults, and on and on. It is somehow of a myth that our prisons in the north country are filled with men who got caught with some crystal meth or pot and did nothing more.

  30. mervel says:

    Society is made better off with these men and women removed from it for a period of time. From that perspective prisons produce security for society and they are an instrument of justice.

  31. tootightmike says:

    That’s what Stalin said.

  32. Rancid Crabtree says:

    So whats your answer Mike? No prison? Let them all walk?

  33. Mervel says:

    I don’t understand either? There never has been a society that did not need prisons, some people are too dangerous to have on the street. Certainly we should look at the degree that we put people in prison and how we go about it. But the fact is prisons are necessary and do contribute to the well being of our society, just as police and fireman are necessary for any functioning society and contribute to its well being.

  34. jill vaughan says:

    We moved to the North Country in 88, when they prisons were just beginning in Malone. We farm, and we watched kids who’d hayed for us, young men who milked with us, go to corrections jobs.They had leaned against weathered fenceposts, the sun on them, scratching cows’s necks,as they watched for heat. Their children tricycled up the aisles as the vaccuum pumps chugged. Their wives brought the babies in strollers. They make more money now, the silos in the valley are unused, and the prison water towers the landmarks. Now they stand guard over men, instead of cows. They get an hour in the exercise yard, and I wonder if any of them remember the feel of a soft summer morning. But pragmatically, they probably remember the 6 days a week work, and the low pay. And the drifting snow at 5:00 a.m. An imperfect world.

    I also work with many who have cycled in and out of the jails. An imperfect world, imperfect people, and we can’t discounty time, chance, and luck. Looking forward to the series.

Comments are closed.