The Supermax Solution

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

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 antiprison 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."

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.

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.

Research assistance: Hillary Chute

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