The Supermax Solution

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

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!"

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.

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).

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