The Supermax Solution
Hopes, Fears, and Prison Building In an Upstate New York Town
The Village Voice | May 18, 1999
Malone, New York—The homes for the town’s newest residents arrived last summer atop 14-wheel tractor trailers. Each tiny, prefab dwelling came furnished with two beds, a mirror over the sink, and steel-reinforced walls. With a photo and caption, the Malone Telegram heralded these new homes: “Prison Cell Blocks Arrive.” Evidently, prison building qualifies as good news in Malone, New York (Pop. 14,297), where concrete cages are not merely houses for criminals. To locals, they are also an answer to chronic underemployment, a magnet for luring new retail stores, and the best hope of recapturing Malone’s boom years.
Each morning around 6:30 a.m., the rumble of construction trucks interrupts the quiet of this rural town 15 miles south of the Canadian border. Pickup trucks, bulldozers, and dump trucks careen down Route 37, turn onto Bare Hill Road, and thunder past a dog pound before stopping inside a vast clearing on the edge of Malone. Here, hundreds of men in hard hats are hurrying to finish construction of Upstate Correctional Facility, which will be the state’s most punitive penitentiary when it opens this summer.
Upstate is the first New York prison built specifically to house the state’s most dangerous inmates, making it a “supermax” in prison lingo. States across the country have erected supermaxes in recent years, but New York’s will be among the harshest. What could be worse than spending 23 hours a day in a cell? Try spending 23 hours a day in a cell with somebody else. The most harrowing aspect of life inside Upstate is that confinement will not be solitary.
Severe overcrowding led New York’s prison officials to begin double-celling inmates in 1995. Men shared a bunk bed at night but were out of their rooms during the day. This practice started with the least violent inmates, and it never applied to prisoners who had defied prison rules—and been sentenced to 23 hours a day in their cells. Until now.
Upstate will enforce a new form of punishment by locking pairs of men together, all day, in 14-by-8-1/2-foot cells. At this two-story prison, 1500 inmates will be crammed together, watched over by 800 surveillance cameras and 370 guards. Rehabilitation is beside the point. The aim is to cut costs—to house as many prisoners as cheaply as possible without triggering a riot or an avalanche of lawsuits. Locking together pairs of criminals with a history of breaking prison rules may save dollars, but this policy has an ominous history. Pelican Bay State Prison in California is in the midst of eliminating this practice because 10 prisoners have killed their cell mates in the last few years.
Upstate’s experiment in human containment requires the participation of Malone residents—without the town’s leaders’ encouraging its construction, and without men and women willing to work inside, the prison would not exist. Malone’s citizens do not decide prison policy, nor do they, for the most part, commit the crimes that have packed the state’s prisons. But they are the ones who will enforce Upstate’s rules. In exchange, Malone will get what it craves: a boost for its ailing economy. The prison will create 510 well-paid jobs (including guards, administrators, and clerical workers). Townspeople hope it will also end the exodus of young people moving away in search of work.
Even so, this $180 million prison is spreading unease throughout Malone. Some residents wonder exactly what will go on inside the high-security facility. Others are simply anxious that the prison will change their town for the worse. There are already two medium-security prisons in Malone, hidden in the same strip of forest where the new supermax is being built. And some residents are beginning to believe that the prisons’ impact extends far beyond the lives of those who work inside.
Prisons seep into a town’s psyche in ways that are nearly impossible to measure—shrinking civic pride, straining guards’ marriages, feeding anxieties about race and crime. The opening of New York’s 70th prison will transform Malone into one of the nation’s largest prison towns. Soon, Malone will have an inmate population of almost 5000—far fewer than the 17,740 prisoners now in New York City’s 14 jails, but a huge number considering that inmates will make up more than one-third of Malone’s total population.
Inside its concrete walls, Upstate will reflect the nation’s criminal-justice priorities at the end of this century: high-tech cost-saving over inmate rehabilitation. Beyond its motion-detecting fences, however, the townspeople’s trepidation about their new supermax echoes the nation’s growing doubts about its prison-building craze—a multibillion-dollar experiment in crime control that persists even as crime rates drop, that has imprisoned nearly 2 million people while permanently altering the landscape, economy, and spirit of hundreds of America’s towns.
TODD FITZGERALD LEANS FORWARD to shut off his tractor’s engine and ponders how a supermax came to be built on his winding dirt road. “I don’t think we’re stupid up here and don’t care,” says the 37-year-old farmer, taking a break from plowing a field where he will soon plant alfalfa. “But there’s low population density, and you don’t get the opposition when you’re building something controversial.”
Todd did not want a maximum-security facility built just a patch of woods away from his house. But he did not fight it. Some of his neighbors signed a petition protesting the prison, but most people did nothing. “Up here,” Todd says, “people think if the state wants to do something, they’re really going to do it.”
Decades of factory layoffs and farm closings have decimated the economy in Malone, leaving behind a town hungry for work and for hope. When Malone’s residents tell a stranger about their hometown, they rummage through the recesses of their minds, dusting off decades-old memories of what once gave them paychecks and pride. Workers hurriedly sewing and gluing slippers at Tru-Stitch Footwear, a fixture in Malone since 1938. The gangster Dutch Schultz and his mobster pals buying beers for locals at the majestic Flanagan Hotel on Main Street during the 1930s. The sprawling farm that everyone says brought in the largest spinach crop east of the Mississippi River.
Today, that 1200-acre farm is no more. Slippers sewn by the town’s residents still appear in the pages of J. Crew and L.L. Bean catalogues, but over the last decade Tru-Stitch has shrunk its workforce from more than 1100 to 350. And a couple of years ago, a fire tore through the Flanagan Hotel. “It was like the heart and soul got ripped out of Malone,” says one lifelong resident. Actually, the spirit of Malone had been taking a beating for years as its economy, like those of towns across New York’s North Country, began to sputter.
Over the last two decades, prisons have become the North Country’s largest growth industry, the panacea for its towns’ economic woes. Since 1980, New York has built eight prisons in this part of the state, bringing the total to nine. Hoping to bolster its economy, Malone lobbied for a medium-security prison in the mid 1980s. It ended up with two: Franklin Correctional Facility in 1986 and Bare Hill Correctional Facility in 1988. Before long, the state increased the size of both prisons, from 750 beds to more than 1700 today. Initially, the state’s new supermax was slated for Tupper Lake, a town 60 miles away, in the heart of Adirondack Park. But when environmental groups protested, the state again turned to Malone.
“We couldn’t care less where the prison is built as long as we get the beds we need,” says James Flateau, spokesperson for the state Department of Correctional Services. “Nobody will make space available in New York City for a prison, and Governor Carey opened a prison in Long Island and got run out of town for it. So the only place left is upstate. Critics like to say we arrest people in the city and send them to prison so we can create jobs in upstate New York. That simply is not true.”
Shipping thousands of prisoners to the North Country does accomplish what most people want from a prison—it keeps the criminals far away. Upstate could not be much farther from New York City—home to two-thirds of the state’s prisoners—and still be within the state’s borders. Meanwhile, the outskirts of Malone are starting to resemble a full-fledged penal colony. The new supermax is so close to Bare Hill Correctional Facility that an Upstate inmate staring out the back of his cell will have a tough time figuring out where his prison ends and the next one begins.
MOST MALONE RESIDENTS, of course, will never see this view. But those who have stepped inside an Upstate cell do not forget the experience. Todd McAleese, a 27-year-old plumber, has been working on the prison for almost a year but cannot imagine surviving in one of its cells. “I’d be dead in a week,” says Todd as he nurses an after-work beer at the Pines, a pub popular with the prison’s construction workers. “I would not eat or drink and I’d be the biggest prick. I’d spit on every guard who walked by. I’d be doing swan dives off the bed.” Todd pauses, then takes a sip. “But this isn’t a regular prison,” he says. “This is the worst of the worst.”
Joyce T. Tavernier, Malone’s Republican mayor, visibly shudders when she recalls peering inside an Upstate cell while touring the facility with fellow members of the prison’s local advisory board. “We give our cats more room than that,” says the 65-year-old mayor, while seated in her modest office next to a wooden pole with an American flag. “We all thought we wouldn’t want to be in one, but I think everyone realized this is the way it had to be,” she says. “We’re not talking about people who spit on the sidewalk or cashed a check that bounced.”
When Todd Fitzgerald, the farmer, spotted a tractor trailer carrying cell blocks parked along his road, he drove closer and poked his head inside. “You’d have to be a total animal to be locked up like that,” says Todd, who owns 25 acres and 35 cows. “I think it would drive me nuts. But we don’t know who’s going to occupy the cell. He probably deserves that or worse.”
Few Malone residents will wind up in these prefab pens. And neither will you, unless you go to prison and refuse to obey the rules—unless you slice another prisoner, cut a hole in the fence, or stash cocaine in your cell. If you do misbehave, prison officials will slap you with time in the “box” or the “hole”—a “special housing unit” (SHU) set apart from the general inmate population. On any given day, close to 4000 of the state’s 71,000 prisoners are doing time in special housing units at facilities across New York. They can be in there for a few weeks or many months. Or they could be looking at 17 years, as Luis Agosto was after he slammed a lieutenant in the head with a baseball bat during a 1997 riot at Mohawk Correctional Facility.
As the state’s SHU population has grown, prison officials have run out of places to house these inmates. To solve this dilemma, the state converted one of its maximum-security prisons, Southport Correctional Facility, into a supermax in 1991. Putting hundreds of troublesome inmates together in one prison helps keep the peace at other state facilities. “It’s a major management tool,” says Flateau. But a few months after Southport’s transformation, angry inmates staged a riot to protest conditions, taking three guards hostage for 26 1/2 hours.
Southport is still a supermax, but the demand for places to send rebellious prisoners persists. So over the last year, prison officials have added 100 SHU cells to eight prisons around the state, and have begun housing two men in each. The rest of the solution lies with Upstate. There, officials insist, the problems will be manageable. “When you get large groups of inmates—that’s when you have problems,” says Thomas Ricks, Upstate’s superintendent. “But here there’s never going to be any large groups of inmates. They’re not as likely to get in trouble because they’re only dealing with their cell mate.”
If you get sentenced to at least 75 days in the box, you could find yourself on a bus headed to Upstate. The only way you can avoid this fate is if prison officials decide you are mentally ill or a “known homosexual.” (In the state prison system, sex is banned and a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prevails; you are a “known homosexual” if you get caught having sex or if you tell someone you’re gay.)
At Upstate, your new home will be a 105-square-foot rectangular room. It’ll be bigger than any other state prison cell you’ve lived in. But it’s still no larger than the bathrooms in many Manhattan apartments. Step in and spread your arms, and your fingers will touch both your bunk bed and the wall. But don’t even think about rearranging the furniture. The sink, toilet, desk, chair, mirror, and bunk bed are already bolted to the cell’s five-inch-thick walls.
Prison officials say they will try to find you a compatible cell mate. If you smoke, you should wind up with a smoker. If you’re small, you’re not supposed to get a roommate who can easily overpower you. Most likely, you’ll share a cell with someone who is the same race. You may spend your days obsessing about whether he has tuberculosis or HIV. And if prison officials don’t do a good job matching cell mates, you could be assaulted or raped or killed.
At first, it might not be so bad living with a roommate. He may help you battle the boredom, and he could stop you from becoming suicidal. But it won’t be long before sharing a cell all day every day becomes unbearable. You’ll be able to tell what your cell mate has eaten for breakfast by the stench of his feces. And soon, you will feel like you are living inside his skin.
When you arrive at Upstate, the guards will confiscate most of your possessions—snacks, razors, radio, photographs. All you’ll have to entertain you are a pen, paper, and your cell mate. You won’t be trading gossip in the mess hall, napping through ESL classes, or playing ball in the rec yard. In fact, you won’t be leaving your cell at all. Food trays arrive through a slot in the door, and there’s a shower in the corner that’s carefully regulated to spew lukewarm water three times a week.
You will almost never see the prison’s 370 guards. Nor will you see much of the 300 “cadre” inmates, who keep the facility running, mopping the halls and doing laundry. To stay plugged in to the prison’s gossip mill, you may try to chat with your neighbor on the “telephone”— by plunging all the water out of your toilet and shouting down the pipe. But if you’re losing your mind, or if your cell mate turns out to be a “booty bandit” (rapist), you better pray the guard who is supposed to check on you every half-hour intervenes. Good luck trying to get help from the outside world—from a journalist or an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS). Prison officials don’t let reporters interview inmates in the box, and Governor George Pataki shut down PLS last year by decimating its budget.
A guard in a central tower will control your access to the outside world. Each day, the officer will unlock your back door by flipping a switch in the control room. Now is your time for “recreation”—a privilege that the courts have said you must get. At Upstate, “rec time” means 60 minutes by yourself in the outdoor cage attached to the rear of your cell. It’s about half the size of your cell, just big enough to do jumping jacks. You could try to wrap your fingers around the steel-mesh fence and do a few pull-ups. But you can’t lift barbells, toss horseshoes, or shoot hoops. The cage is empty. Of course, even if you had a basketball, there’s barely enough room to dribble more than a couple of steps.
Looking out from your own personal rec area—what one of the prison’s architects describes as a “caged balcony” and some guards call a “kennel”—you’ll see other cages and a dirt yard empty except for a row of surveillance cameras mounted on poles. Officers watch your every move, and if you don’t come in from recess, they’ll come get you.
But if you do follow the rules and don’t irk the guards, you’ll regain a few privileges after 30 days. You’ll be able to buy candy from the prison store, though you won’t actually be able to go there and pick it out. And you’ll get back your own underwear, so you can ditch that state-issued pair. Stay clean and you will eventually escape this prison-within-a-prison. You’ll be shipped to another facility to finish off your sentence or sent straight back to the streets.
WHEN MALONE’S TOWNSPEOPLE discuss their new supermax, phrases like “double-celling” or “inmate-on-inmate assaults” rarely pop up. Instead, they talk about family reunions. Raymond Head, 35, is hoping the new prison brings home his brother Jamie. Back home, the two used to hang twice a week—“wrestling, playing Nintendo, whatever brothers do,” Raymond says. But now that Jamie, 28, has become a guard at Eastern Correctional Facility in Ulster County, he rarely sees Raymond, a guard and union leader at Malone’s Franklin Correctional Facility.
Career options are so few in the North Country that prison guard has become a popular choice. Many correction officers spend the bulk of their twenties working in other parts of the state before they can collect enough seniority to transfer home. When Raymond became a correction officer in 1984, he was assigned to Bedford Hills, the women’s maximum-security prison in Westchester County. There, he earned $13,800 a year, and lived in a $700-a-month studio apartment. Rents in the area were so steep that some of his colleagues slept in their cars.
Raymond survived on 99-cent Big Macs and dreamed of a transfer back to Malone, where his $45,000 annual salary far exceeds Malone’s median household income, which was $21,229 at the last census count. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” recalls Raymond. “I thought about quitting a couple times down there. I was pretty homesick.”
Raymond did nearly four years at Bedford Hills before he got home. Since then, the wait for a transfer back to the North Country has stretched to six or seven years. The opening of Upstate could shorten this delay. Jamie filled out his “dream sheet” for a transfer to the new supermax, but ended up number 448. “They’re only taking 326,” Raymond says. “So he probably won’t make it. He’ll have to sit back and wait another year or a year-and-a-half.”
Mayor Tavernier grows excited when she talks about Upstate’s opening. “Malone has been dying a bit,” she says. “There’s been no new business for a few years. Since the prison has been announced, we have . . . a wholesale food place, Aldi, which we had not had in the area. And Price Chopper is coming to Malone. And a couple of drugstores that had stores in the area are building larger ones.”
Indeed, when the construction dust clears, Malone will have a total of four drugstores and eight convenience stores. The enthusiasm the new stores have created seems to have little to do with residents wanting another place to purchase aspirin or toothpaste, however. In Malone, pounding jackhammers and the growl of bulldozers are less a nuisance than a morale booster.
The plethora of pharmacies in Malone is one of the few public signs of the town’s invisible population. Local drugstores have contracts with the prisons; the inmates help keep them in business. And the best customers at the town’s many convenience stores are prison guards, who often have long commutes. But this retail boom hardly meets everyone’s needs. “You go through this town and that’s all you see—24-hour convenience stores,” says Gerald K. Moll, the police chief of Malone. “You can’t buy a pair of jeans, but you can get coffee and a newspaper.”
Shoppers hunting for bargains once flocked to J.J. Newberry on Malone’s Main Street. But today, all they will find if they rub the dirt off the store’s cracked windows is a cavernous room empty save for a plastic garbage pail. J.J. Newberry closed four years ago, and the dog feces caked to the cement walkway in front appears to be almost that old. Sears has left town, too. Now the best choice for Malone’s clothes shoppers is Kmart. A waitress at a Main Street diner tells visitors, “When you go back to New York City, bring us some department stores!”
Hints of bitterness occasionally surface in conversations about Upstate, since some residents already feel left out of this new town. Lee Mandigo was thrilled when he first heard the state was building a prison less than a quarter mile from his trailer home. “I thought, ‘Hell, I live at the bottom of the hill and I have carpentry skills. I could work up there for 18 months,’” says Lee, as he stands on his front lawn, nodding toward the evergreen trees in the distance that hide the supermax. But when Lee, 34, tried to land a construction job at the prison, he says he was told there were no more available. All the work had been contracted to out-of-town companies.
As the new supermax has grown, so has Lee’s frustration. He has had to endure watching the prison get a little closer to completion each time he drives by, knowing that state money is flowing into other people’s pockets but not his. More than a year has passed since Lee last saw a paycheck, and even when he had a job building roofs and additions for other people’s homes, he earned only $5.25 an hour. “There’s not enough work,” he says, slouching forward as he shoves his hands deep into his jean pockets. “Everyone is depressed.”
To pay his bills and feed his two young children, Lee is clinging to the same hope that buoys many of his fellow townspeople. He’s trying to get into the prison. When he’s not caring for his one-year-old daughter, Lee pores over photocopies he made at the local library of a study book for the prison guard exam.
Lee’s other solution to his cash shortage involved sticking a for-sale sign in front of his house. Not long ago, he paid $6000 for these seven-and-three-quarters acres of land, then bought a trailer home for $7000. Lee figures his only chance for reaping a profit lies with the families of Upstate’s inmates, and he plans to ask his real estate agent to advertise the property in a New York City newspaper. Already, Lee says he knows what the ad will say: “Be close to your loved one! Bottom of the hill! You can practically see ‘em!”
LEE MAY BE THE ONLY PERSON in town who is hoping the new supermax entices prisoners’ family members to move here. At Embers, the town’s busiest diner, this possibility evokes strong emotions. “The ones that are in prison now [in Malone], it’s not that serious,” says Myra Fleury, the diner’s 63-year-old owner, who hustles around in a pair of fuzzy slippers, frying platefuls of bacon and refilling coffee mugs. “They’re not killers. They’re drug addicts, deadbeat dads.” But the new inmates, Myra says, “won’t be going home in two or three years. So I think you might see more families moving in. That’s what people are concerned about.”
“People are always afraid of changes,” says Molly Augusta, who works the diner’s grill. Myra nods in agreement. “Especially in small towns,” she says.
The new prison has kept Malone’s rumor mill grinding for nearly two years. They’re going to put the state’s death house in Malone. They’re building a gas chamber. They’re building a women’s prison. They’re building a prison hospital. They’re opening a home for the criminally insane. They’re building yet another men’s prison. They’re building housing for inmates’ relatives. State prison officials insist none of these rumors are true. But that has not stopped them from flying around every bar and coffee shop in town.
The town’s most persistent rumor is that prisoners’ families are moving to Malone. This fear is not completely far-fetched. A few inmates’ relatives have moved to nearby Dannemora to be closer to Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison. But this rumor is repeated so often, and with such conviction, that it seems to be about something far more than a handful of relatives. Perhaps the wives and mothers and girlfriends and children of inmates represent everything Malone fears most. They are mostly poor, African American or Latino, and from New York City. Townspeople insist that if these strangers move here, they’ll rob Malone of its small-town feel. Residents worry about having to lock their doors when they leave their homes, or no longer recognizing most of their fellow shoppers at the Super Duper Supermarket.
What concerns townspeople most is crime. It has been on the rise here in recent years, and many locals blame the prisons. There are no statistics showing that inmates’ families are the cause, however. “The only people who get in trouble are our local people,” says Molly, flipping hamburgers on the grill. “When you read about anyone breaking into a place in the paper, it’s a local person—not someone whose husband is in prison.”
WHEN AN ALMOST ALL-WHITE TOWN is home to thousands of African American and Hispanic felons, anxieties about race and crime never stray far from the collective imagination. But few people in Malone want to talk about race. One exception is Kaye K. Johnson, who estimates that there are only 15 or 20 African Americans living in Malone, including her own family. In 1990, Kaye, her husband, and their then five-year-old son came to Malone from Trenton, New Jersey. “We moved here to get away from urban decay, crime, drug dealers on the corners,” says Kaye, 51, as she serves tea in the living room of her tidy, split-level home. “We saw an ad in the paper: No crime. Cheap land. We called the number and they flew us up here . . . and we bought some land on sight.”
Since arriving in Malone, Kaye has launched a one-woman campaign to monitor and improve the town’s race relations. Every time the Malone Telegram or the Press-Republican in nearby Plattsburgh mention prisons or racial incidents, Kaye cuts out the story. Her files are bulging. Recent additions include an article about a guard accused of public nudity (he was wandering around his porch dressed only in socks, then hiding behind a barbecue when cars passed) and another about a guard who was charged with sexually abusing an inmate in a prison laundry room (the inmate fought back, slicing the guard’s penis with a coffee can lid).
Rooting through her manila folders stuffed with clippings, Kaye wonders aloud how the prisons have changed her town, how they have influenced residents’ attitudes and behavior. “I’d never been called the N-word until I moved here,” says Kaye, a teaching assistant at the local middle school. “At the same time, I’ve never met such nice people as I did here either. It’s like two extremes.” Kaye believes the prisons’ racial imbalance is partly to blame for how some Malone residents treat her. “The attitudes of correction officers spill over into the community,” she says. “Many of them haven’t gone out of the area, and the only black people they know are in the prisons. I don’t want to see these attitudes perpetuated.”
So Kaye became Upstate’s loudest opponent. Last year, she tried to stop its construction by filing a lawsuit with the help of the Center for Law and Justice, an anti-prison group in Albany. Their suit included almost every conceivable argument against the prison: that it would spread tuberculosis and HIV, that it would increase noise in the area, that it would adversely affect the environment, that it would cause traffic jams, that it would disrupt water service. A state supreme court judge ruled against them, saying they had failed to show that Kaye herself would be adversely affected by the new supermax.
Like everybody else in town, Kaye worries about crime, and about all the worst aspects of urban life coming to Malone. So she too prays that inmates’ relatives do not buy homes here. “I know all prisoners’ families are not criminally prone or dangerous,” Kaye says. “But you want your family to be safe and not have to worry about drive-by shootings. And not that Malone is going to escalate to that point, but . . . certain types of people—no matter what color they are—I don’t want them around.”
THREE MILES AWAY from Kaye’s home, workers are putting the final touches on the new prison—gluing tiles to the floors, sweeping up debris, preparing to add the superintendent’s name to the metal sign out front. Soon the construction trucks will pull out of Upstate’s 70-acre lot for the last time. People driving down Route 37 at night will see an even brighter glow, as the new supermax joins with the town’s two other prisons to light the sky like a city in the distance. Malone’s residents will not hear the shouts echoing down the corridors of their new high-security prison. But as pairs of violent criminals from New York City and around the state move into the supermax’s cells, Malone’s residents will be left to confront their fears, to decide what problems the prison solves and which ones it brings, and to wonder how this latest chapter in America’s experiment in crime control will end.