The intertwined history of mass incarceration and environmentalism in Upstate New York's prison-building boom.
by Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. via Edge Effects on October 23, 2018
Repurposing vacant medical, educational, and industrial facilities built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for modern penal use required more than simply barring the windows and erecting a fence. Unsurprisingly, prison conversion in the Adirondacks created environmental impacts disproportionate to the institutions’ limited square footage. Runoff from excavation and tree removal eroded soil, killed wildlife, damaged wetlands, and befouled drinking water. Moreover, increased traffic, noise, and dust from construction posed threats to quality of life and adjacent property values. Provisioning clean water, sewage, electricity, and other services to the penitentiaries, meanwhile, required complex deals with local municipalities and the building of new infrastructure. Finally, penal expansion exposed residents and visitors to risks previously unknown in their isolated mountain homes, including inmate escapes. Yet, the compilation of exhaustive environmental impact statements often proved to be correctional officials’ least difficult task.
Area residents, second homeowners, seasonal tourists, and environmental regulators and activists—most of whom hoped to prevent the growth of prisons in the Adirondacks—helped mitigate some of the facilities’ worst impacts. Though drawn primarily from the legions of affluent visitors whose wilderness retreats often abutted penal properties, the opposition also boasted a sizable number of less-well-off permanent residents. Critics’ arguments against penitentiaries reflected their socioeconomic and political diversity. Theirs was a strange blend of liberal anti-prison messaging, Progressive-Era conservationism, modern environmentalism, and reactionary conservatism. To wit, permanent and seasonal residents committed to preserving their communities’ ecological integrity, public health, and racial homogeneity made strange bedfellows with individuals and organizations concerned about the moral and racial injustices of mass incarceration. Ideological divisions notwithstanding, opponents successfully exploited legal provisions authorizing public involvement in state projects to seat themselves at the prison planning table.
State leaders fumed as opposition activists made emergency penitentiary construction a drawn-out, time-consuming affair. Though New York law enfeebled critics from day one, grassroots anti-prison groups forced officials to convene public hearings, launched letter writing campaigns to periodicals and politicians, filed lawsuits, made endless document requests, and staged rowdy protests both inside and outside the region. Nevertheless, even a unified, well-financed, and vocal opposition could not overcome the state’s undisputed right to redevelop its own properties. Opponents’ ultimate failure to stop the prisons, however, did not mean their work had been in vain. Critics’ efforts helped limit the penitentiaries’ impacts and shaped their integration into host communities.