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Toward an Environmental History of American Prisons

On a warm night in June 1845, two inmates recently escaped from the newly opened Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York lay still in a bug-infested swamp not eight hundred feet from the prison wall, contemplating their next move.  After absconding from the penitentiary earlier that day, the duo spent hours in hopeless pursuit of freedom a few miles north in Canada.  To their dismay, the men discovered the rugged, undeveloped environment surrounding the prison—high in the northeast corner of the Adirondack Mountains—posed a formidable challenge to even the most experienced backcountry explorer.  Disoriented by thick underbrush, dense forests, biting insects, and mountains as far as the eye could see, the prisoners ascended and then unwittingly descended nearby Dannemora Mountain, completing a circular route that landed them back within sight of the roughhewn, wooden stockade by nightfall.

Determined to remain free, the inmates embarked the next morning on a road bearing east toward Plattsburgh, with Lake Champlain visible in the distance.  Having concealed their identities long enough to enjoy breakfast at the cabin of a local widow, the prisoners continued their journey, only to be interrupted by the sounds of gunshots and barking dogs.  Dashing into the woods, officers shot and apprehended one of the men, while the remaining fugitive spent a second night in the wilderness before surrendering the following day.  The failure of Clinton’s first escapees both helped to expose flaws in prison security and, more importantly for our story, demonstrated the centrality of nonhuman nature to the operation of correctional facilities in New York’s northern forests.

Map of prisons in New York, produced by Gerry Krieg (2014).

One hundred seventy years later, a pair of prisoners made international headlines after escaping from the same penitentiary—since renamed Clinton Correctional Facility—into an environment that remained as forbidding as it had been nearly two centuries earlier.  Equally impressive was the fact that that same environment helped shield the fugitives—Richard Matt and David Sweat—from officers armed with sophisticated surveillance technologies and weapons that searchers back in 1845 could only have dreamt about.  While journalists, politicians, and news consumers in June 2015 spent weeks tracking the manhunt, exploring how the inmates escaped, and unearthing official misconduct and corruption behind the prison walls, one of the central players in the history of American prisons—the natural environment—lay hidden, much like Clinton escapees past and present, in plain sight.

Like many facets of the American past, mass incarceration looks different if we consider it through the lens of environmental history.  In particular, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we can see this in three ways: the environment used as a tool of incarceration; prisons as a cheap source of labor; and, the role of citizen activism and organized environmentalism in prison site selection and construction.  The grim environment of many early urban prisons—characterized by overcrowding, cramped cells, poor hygiene, insufficient sanitation, and inadequate food, medicine, and clean water—closely mirrored that of the nation’s growing cities and industrial workplaces.  Concern for the health and safety of prisoners and officers alike prompted lawmakers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to construct larger facilities in less densely populated areas, including Dannemora, New York; Leavenworth, Kansas; San Quentin, California; McNeil Island, Washington; and San Francisco’s Alcatraz, among others.  The largely undeveloped and lightly populated areas targeted for penal expansion, however, often proved both blessing and curse.

Before the advent of the conservation movement in the late nineteenth century, prison planners unencumbered by environmental regulations—much like factory owners—sought regions teeming with natural resources that could be exploited both for construction and long-term operations.  For politicians, building penitentiaries in distant, undeveloped locales offered several potential advantages: relief of overcrowding in existing prisons; inmate rehabilitation through labor in “untouched” wilderness; and, population growth and economic expansion in areas long avoided for their remoteness, difficult terrain, and unforgiving climate.  Thus, the spot chosen for Clinton Prison surrounded an untapped iron mine—to be staffed by inmate workers—set amidst the high mountains and rugged forests of northern New York.  The new penitentiary, officials hoped, would therefore do more than simply fulfill the state’s carceral imperatives.  If successful, inmates recommitted to a life of honest work would abandon criminality; the sale of processed ore to the state would ensure the prison’s financial solvency; and, private businessmen, inspired by Clinton’s success, would invest in local enterprises and infrastructure that would transform the area from a rural backwater to a bustling commercial district.

Lawmakers’ dreams of prison-induced economic miracles, however, failed to consider the potential for corrections, instead of serving as handmaiden to the growth of other industries, to become a distinct sector of local economies and environments.  Increasing crime in the nation’s expanding urban areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries swelled the capacity of the relatively small number of state and federal penitentiaries.  As overcrowding necessitated the hiring of additional staff, the areas surrounding prisons witnessed the type of growth New York leaders had hoped for in the mid-nineteenth century.  By the early decades of the twentieth century, new home construction near penitentiaries helped spur both public and private investments—ranging from retail outlets to lighted streets, schools, and paved highways—that transformed once unsettled outposts into communities abuzz with economic activity.  Prisons packed to capacity anchored families in growing towns and villages—and prison employment—for generations, ensuring that places like Dannemora would come to be defined almost exclusively by their penitentiaries.

Steadily expanding prisons thus aided in the creation of environments where corrections determined the rhythms of everyday life.  Once again, Dannemora proves instructive.  Prisoners were no stranger to the Adirondack wilderness, as their low paid labor helped preserve the structural and ecological integrity of the area’s built and unbuilt environments.  Inmate work crews tended animals and crops on the prison farm; buried the unclaimed remains of deceased prisoners in its cemetery; and performed a variety of public works projects—in coordination with the state Conservation Department—for cash-strapped towns and villages.  Among these, prisoners cleared brush and litter from area roadways; assisted with flood control and snow removal; and refurbished local parks, recreational spaces, and public buildings.  The savings accrued to area taxpayers from the early 1900s onward—many of whom depended on salaries earned in corrections—could be used to enjoy outdoor recreation, oftentimes provided in facilities refurbished by inmate labor.  Thus, by the late twentieth century, few who lived or traveled in the northern Adirondacks could claim not to have a connection—however tenuous—to New York’s largest maximum security prison.

An unprecedented overcrowding prison overcrowding crisis—spurred on in New York following passage of the Narcotics Control Act of 1973—prompted a frenzy of penitentiary construction that continued without interruption from the mid-1970s to the turn of the twenty-first century.  This stunning transformation coincided both with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and the advent of the modern environmental movement.  The convergence of three historical phenomena—deindustrialization, environmentalism, and mass incarceration—helped shape the contours of an expanded penal environment in northern New York whose reach would eventually extend far beyond Dannemora.

A combination of market forces and new environmental rules spelled a slow but steady decline for northern New York’s logging camps, iron mines, and tuberculosis sanitaria by the early 1970s.  As droves of unemployed residents chased fortune in the Sun Belt, hordes of tourists and second homeowners arrived in the Adirondacks in pursuit of respite from the nation’s crime-riddled urban areas.  A bitter sense of resentment washed over Adirondackers too poor to move and increasingly consigned to the low paying and irregular employment afforded by the growing tourist trade.  History seemed to be repeating itself, as passage of environmental regulations—from creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892 to the birth of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in 1973—suggested to many locals that protecting nature was a scheme whose ultimate objective was their dispossession for the benefit of upper-middle-class “tree huggers.”  Thus, when severe prison overcrowding prompted the state to open a new correctional facility—inside a shuttered tuberculosis sanitarium—in the Essex County hamlet of Ray Brook in 1976, local residents and politicians saw in penal employment a sustainable way to break the grip they believed environmentalists and affluent “outsiders” exercised over their lives.  With no end in sight, the crisis of mass incarceration—entailing social and economic hardship for tens of thousands of other, primarily nonwhite New Yorkers—seemed to many locals the Adirondacks’ best hope for a brighter future.

From 1976 to 2000, lawmakers would address—and thereby exacerbate—the overcrowding emergency by doubling the number of prisons in New York, reaching seventy facilities holding over 71,000 inmates by the turn of the century.  More than a dozen of these institutions were built in the Adirondack region, where the growth of corrections exposed both the limitations and possibilities of environmental law.  Unlike in 1845, correctional planners scouting potential prison sites in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were not venturing forth into an undeveloped wilderness.  Though lightly populated—only 130,000 reside in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park year-round—the battle between the region’s permanent and seasonal residents over the meaning and use of nonhuman nature was fully engaged by the time state and federal prison builders arrived.  Thus, penal bureaucrats eager to relieve overcrowding had to walk a fine line between locals clamoring for stable jobs and second homeowners bitterly opposed to developments they viewed as inconsistent with the Park’s wilderness character.

In making their case both to supportive locals and skeptical outsiders, correctional planners borrowed heavily from their mid-nineteenth-century predecessors.  Emphasizing prisons’ potential economic benefits in a region with chronically high unemployment and poverty rates, officials offered penitentiary jobs as a “recession-proof” vehicle toward broader and more general economic recovery for northern New York.  To minimize costs in an era of retrenchment, penal bureaucrats often sought out surplus state properties in depressed communities that could be easily converted for carceral use.  Avoiding new construction, planners hoped, would also aid in relaxing tensions with the Adirondacks’ wealthy tourists and seasonal property owners, many of whom—not needing a job in corrections—used their financial and political clout to enlist the Adirondack Park Agency and environmental groups to oppose prison building in the area.

Since Park Agency regulations prevented the APA from stopping public developments on state lands, relevant stakeholders often found themselves party to compromises that permitted prison construction with conditions.  At various times, correctional planners responded to public concerns by installing special lighting and preserving existing vegetation to shield facilities from public view; surrendering unused parcels for classification as constitutionally protected, “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve; and, much as at Dannemora, offering communities use of free inmate labor on infrastructure projects whose costs often outweighed shrinking area tax rolls.  Only once the state began closing prisons in the early twenty-first-century did many former penitentiary opponents realize their value; namely, the very inmates whose presence they had so fervently resisted had, over the course of several decades, helped preserve—at low cost—the very wilderness environment they prized so dearly.  Thus, despite planners’ best efforts, in the end it was prisoners themselves who helped naturalize penitentiaries in the Adirondack Park.

Of course, the Empire State is but one—albeit large—piece of a nationwide penal environment whose size and scale have no historical precedent or contemporary international counterpart.  Today, the correctional system in the United States incarcerates 2.2 million men and women in a sprawling network of prisons and jails—of varying sizes and security designations—at an annual cost of $80 billion.  The American penal footprint knows no boundaries, encompassing peoples and places with widely varying connections to the justice system. Hundreds of thousands work in federal, state, and local correctional systems—providing financial security and health benefits for their dependents—and millions more derive their livelihoods operating and working in businesses dependent on prison contracts and consumption.  At the same time, millions of primarily nonwhite, poor, and urban Americans endure the personal, social, and financial strains associated with having a loved one in prison.  Sadly, history shows us that financial objectives as much as carceral imperatives have helped drive the growth of the American prison system, leaving—much like in non-penal industries—plenty of victims in its wake.  As such, viewing mass incarceration through the lens of environmental history does not merely alter how we view and study the American criminal justice system.  Instead, it helps us better understand how deeply embedded prison life is in the broader society, economy, and environment of the United States, both past and present.

Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. is assistant professor of history at Queensborough Community College, The City University of New York.  He is currently completing his first book, Prisonland: Environmentalism and the Politics of Mass Incarceration in Northern New York, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press.