The Supermax Solution

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

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.

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.

"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.

« Previous Page
Next Page »