The Supermax Solution

Hopes, Fears, and Prison Building In an Upstate New York Town

 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.

Inside the visiting room: Inmates— and their relatives— will arrive at Upstate starting in July.
Andrew Lichtenstein
Inside the visiting room: Inmates— and their relatives— will arrive at Upstate starting in July.

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."

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