The Supermax Solution

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

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.

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.

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.

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