Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr. A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York's North Country. Environmental History of the Northeast Series. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020. Illustrations. 288 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-536-3; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-535-6.
Reviewed by Xander Lenc (University of California, Berkeley)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2021)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Are prisons and jails ecological institutions? Do they have distinct environmental footprints? Do they represent a failure to consider the environment, or are they predicated on environmental thinking? While “green” criminologists and their critics have long debated the use of the criminal justice system to tackle environmental problems as criminal problems, there has more recently been a multidisciplinary push to investigate the ecological dimensions of incarceration itself, especially in the United States. This body of work has generally been critical of prisons and invested in the core tenets of environmental justice: questioning the logic of “green” prison design and rehabilitation programs, probing the promise and limitations of environmental law’s capacity to monitor the ecological impact of prisons, probing the conceptual and social relationships between carcerality and animality, and theorizing prisons as sites of toxic exposure that entrench patterns of environmental racism. But curiously, this emerging multidisciplinary literature on ecology and mass incarceration has so far seen fewer entries from the field of environmental history. Historian Clarence Jefferson Hall Jr.’s book A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country is a welcome reversal of this trend, with a rigorous account of the planning, construction, operation, and (in some cases) closure of six state and federal prisons in New York’s vast and forested “North Country” in the Adirondack Mountains from the 1840s to the early 2000s.
Unlike other major monographs of incarceration in the state of New York, Hall focuses less on statewide and national political crisis and transformation or inmate resistance and more on efforts by the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to secure permission to build new facilities, one rural community at a time. As one might expect, the bulk of this drama unfolds from late 1960s onward, when the swiftly rising incarceration rate encountered an ascendent environmental movement armed with new legal tools, such as New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR). To this extent, A Prison in the Woods appears at first to be a familiar story of state and federal land-use planning in the United States, where projects rise or fall according to local politics around job creation and property values, the waxing and waning interests of investors, permitting missteps, the political theater of public comment periods, complex transfers of property between private and public landholders, and rivalries between state agencies. In particular, the focus on the rancor of local hearings will inevitably invite comparison to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s now-canonical account of a municipal debate over prison construction in the economically troubled small town of Corcoran, California (Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California ). But unlike Gilmore, who uses Corcoran as a singular case of a spatial fix for a statewide and global crisis of capital accumulation, A Prison in the Woods offers a more localized history of incarceration in five different villages and hamlets: Dannemora, Ray Brook, Gabriels, Lyon Mountain, and Tupper Lake. State and federal bureaucracies, such as DOCS and BOP, are of course key players, but rather than rehashing the complicated legal and political causes of mass incarceration in New York (which Hall largely ascribes to the Rockefeller drug laws), A Prison in the Woods focuses more on its regional material and cultural effects.
The result of this approach is not a compromise in depth but an effective demonstration of how mass incarceration developed (and, in some cases, contracted) along surprisingly diverse trajectories, even in superficially similar communities in a common region. While less-localized studies might collapse these heterogenous communities into the undifferentiated category of “surplus land” experiencing part of a generalizable global economic crisis, attending to different prison towns one at a time, chapter by chapter, yields a more complicated set of stories. While BOP converted a private college into a new federal prison in the economically threatened hamlet of Ray Brook over the fierce objection of environmental activists (chapter 3), DOCS ultimately withdrew plans for a facility in the declining former logging village of Tupper Lake out of environmental concerns despite decades of vigilant local pro-prison activism (chapter 5). Communities that did experience prison development also had different levels of success in harnessing facilities as engines of economic and social revival and development. Results could even vary within a single town. A state prison converted from Olympic athlete housing in Ray Brook won over many skeptical local residents by using prisoner labor to refurbish churches, clear vegetation for industrial sites, cut firewood, and battle forest fires and flooding, a relief for a region struggling to grapple with regional austerity and disinvestment. But just half a mile away, a federal prison’s “insubstantial, ad hoc attempts at integration” with the non-incarcerated community led to enough local resentment to scuttle plans to build a third prison in Ray Brook (p. 84).
Hall is careful to note that environmentalist opposition to the rise of the Adirondack prisonland was not a monolith either. While groups like Stop The Olympic Prison (STOP) in Ray Brook expressed seemingly sincere concerns about the risks that prison proliferation posed for the local environment and Black and Latino communities, groups like Tupper Lake Concerned Citizens (TLCC) or Gabriels’s Citizens Against More Prisons in the Adirondacks (CAMPA) deployed environmentalist rhetoric as a convenient cover for their “uniquely racist brand of environmentalism,” where the increasingly Black and Latino incarcerated population was seen as an a priori threat to the environment and region’s racial and class hierarchy. What united the affluent residents who spearheaded most of these opposition campaigns was the understanding of a park as “a place solely dedicated to the promotion of health, leisure, and recreation,” a definition that excluded not only correctional facilities but also many other potential sources of employment for their working-class neighbors (p. 94). But Hall argues that the notion that “prisons did not conform with the Adirondack environment effectively denied the area’s history” of incarceration dating back to the mid-nineteenth century (p. 123). In fact, all but one facility covered in A Prison in the Woods (Clinton State Prison, built in Dannemora in 1844, covered in chapter 1) was built in an area trying to revive towns whose non-recreational sources of employment were languishing, a far cry from the unspoiled nature described by bucolic prison supporters and opponents. Ultimately, some influential residents came to value the benefits of a local unfree labor force improving recreational facilities, or the new water treatment infrastructure that could be shared with areas already struggling with contaminated groundwater. But working-class residents were often disappointed when the reality of new job opportunities fell short of the rosy forecasts of carceral boosters or when prisons such as Camp Gabriels and Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility were shuttered entirely within only a few decades.
Even if organizations like TLCC and CAMPA were only nominally or provisionally concerned with the welfare of local wildlife, the actual ecological harms of new carceral facilities could be considerable, including multiple alarming cases in which damaged or malfunctioning prison sewage systems polluted local wetlands and threatened the safety of the town’s water supply. But what distinguishes these problems from the impact of non-carceral forms of development? Do prisons follow a unique pattern of material environmental change? The facilities described in A Prison in the Woods were planned, debated over, and built within the larger history of mass incarceration but with some exceptions (for example, clearcutting on prison grounds to discourage quick escapes into the woods); it does not appear to be Hall’s central argument that penitentiaries have categorically distinct “environmental legacies” from the tuberculosis clinics, addiction rehabilitation centers, and Olympic athlete housing that some of these prisons were converted from, or twentieth-century conservation camps that used non-incarcerated labor to transform or maintain the landscape (p. 131). Nor does there seem to be an important difference in the status of prisons under environmental law. Ultimately, the facilities in the North Country prisonland are subject to—or alternately, not subject to—most of the same environmental review process (for example, SEQR) and present similar problems, such as large quantities of raw sewage.
But perhaps carceral logic is a unique manifestation of preexisting and popular environmental concepts. Hall often notes that tuberculosis clinicians and prison boosters alike used a similar argument in support of their institutions: the notion that clean mountain air and access to the beauty of nature is somehow rehabilitative, making the Adirondacks an ideal site for facilities that cleanse and transform troubled people from the city. But as the demographics of US incarceration shifted in the 1970s and 1980s and prisons were recast as sites of overwhelmingly Black and Latino detention, the ensuing racial panic of rural white prison NIMBYism appears to have adopted an environmental register of its own. Thus journalists at the Lake Placid News could warn Ray Brook voters that a new penitentiary would ensure that “no longer will distance and mountain winds silence the ghetto’s scream,” and prison opponents in Gabriels compared imprisoned men to dangerous wild animals or toxins that could poison the region’s wetlands (p. 62). Comparing non-white people to invasive species is hardly new to the tradition of anglophone racism, but Hall is careful to note that the task for many prison boosters and administrators became to “naturalize” the new facilities. Planners used aesthetic tactics such as vegetative screens to help facilities visually blend into the forest ecosystem, but they also had to contend with affluent white residents for whom “the community’s demographic profile ... was as natural as its waters, woods, and wildlife” (p. 99). The white local elite was only won over (sometimes after prisons were built over their objections) when it became clear that prisons could bulwark rather than breach their position of social dominance over both free prison workers and inmates, who came to be appreciated “as integral components of the ... environment” (p. 126). These are the moments that give the book its underlying power, especially in its third chapter, even if Hall tends to handle them obliquely. The story of the Adirondack prisonland does not just suggest that racism serves as an organizing logic for who is exposed to state-sanctioned environmental vulnerabilities. Racism also appears as a broader organizing logic for the environmental politics of incarceration that is seemingly shared by many proponents and opponents of prison proliferation in Adirondack State Park.
Hall’s concluding question is more practical than sentimental: as the high-water mark of mass incarceration passes and New York’s correctional facilities begin to close, how should the North Country’s carceral legacy be memorialized? The material footprint of these prisons extends far beyond the remains of the defunct or converted facility buildings themselves: many of the most enduring features of the built Adirondack landscape were in fact built by prisoners. But Hall argues that memorializing prisoner labor in the park is a fraught enterprise, not only because it challenges the prevailing image of the area as a space of recreation but also because “including corrections as a significant chapter in the history of northern New York rightly complicates the stereotypical image of the Adirondacks as the birthplace of [US] American conservation” (p. 202). This is not simply a professional obligation for academic historians to correct popular misconceptions; visitors and residents owe a much broader “collective debt” to Black and Latino prisoners for their past and ongoing labor in the park (p. 205). It’s irresistible to see A Prison in the Woods as an earnest attempt by Hall—who was raised in the shadow of Clinton Correctional Facility, where his father worked for twenty-five years—to personally confront his own portion of that debt.
But the task of memorializing the environmental legacy of incarceration in Adirondack State Park may be even more fraught than Hall suggests. The network of roadside plaques he proposes might help interrupt the widespread understanding of the park as a primeval wilderness free of large state institutions like prisons, but it is still possible—likely, even—for monuments and plaques memorializing the environmental legacy of prisoner labor in Adirondack State Park to become subsumed in precisely the same process of prison naturalization that Hall describes elsewhere in A Prison in the Woods. Just as Walt Whitman valorized indigenous people of the American West and redwood trees and simultaneously celebrated genocide and clear-cutting as heroic historical and even natural inevitabilities in Leaves of Grass, any public history project risks portraying the class and racial hierarchy entrenched by prison development as part of the natural Adirondack environment. The fact that it is quite possible that roadside historical plaques, even somber and historically accurate ones, might ultimately be erected by unwaged or underwaged prisoners only underscores the insufficiency of memorialization to meet the challenge of the collective debt Hall describes. If the goal is to rectify a collective debt incurred by the forcible enrollment of Black and Latino labor into a rural development scheme that overwhelmingly benefited white people, memorialization only makes sense within a larger project of material and political reparations for the communities most severely affected by mass incarceration. To this end, the spectacular scholarship of A Prison in the Woods is still essential. It is more than a historical monument, plaque, or testament; it is also a ledger of the debts incurred by racism and mass incarceration in New York’s North Country.
. Piers Beirne and Nigel South, eds., Issues in Green Criminology (New York: Routledge, 2013); and Mark Halsey, “Against ‘Green’ Criminology,” British Journal of Criminology 44, no. 6 (2004): 833-53.
. B. Jewell Bohlinger, “Greening the Gulag: Austerity, Neoliberalism, and the Making of the ‘Green Prisoner,’” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 3, no. 4 (2020): 1120-36; Elizabeth Zoe Alexander, “Imaginaries and Contradictions of Agriculture as Rehab in the Carceral State: A Critical Evaluation” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 2019); Joshua Sbicca, “These Bars Can’t Hold Us Back: Plowing Incarcerated Geographies with Restorative Food Justice,” Antipode 48, no. 5 (2016): 1359-79; Michelle L. Edwards, Briana Luna, and Hannah Edwards, “Environmental Injustices in Immigrant Detention: How Absences Are Embedded in the National Environmental Policy Act Process,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 4, no. 2 (2021): 429-50; Keith K. Miyake, “Institutionalizing Environmental Justice: Race, Place, and the National Environmental Policy Act” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2016); Karen M. Morin, Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (New York: Routledge, 2018); Kelly Struthers Montford, “Dehumanized Denizens, Displayed Animals: Prison Tourism and the Discourse of the Zoo,” PhiloSOPHIA 6, no. 1 (2016): 73-91; Dominique Moran, “Budgie Smuggling or Doing Bird? Human-Animal Interactions in Carceral Space: Prison(er) Animals as Abject and Subject,” Social & Cultural Geography 16, no. 6 (2015): 634-53; Panagioti Tsolkas, “Incarceration, Justice, and the Planet: How the Fight against Toxic Prisons May Shape the Future of Environmentalism,” Prison Legal News 27, no. 6 (2016): 1-13; Harrison Ashby, Jasmine Vazin, and David Pellow, “Superfund Sites and Juvenile Detention: Proximity Analysis in the Western United States,” Environmental Justice 13, no. 3 (2020): 65-74; and Ki’Amber Thompson, “Prisons, Policing, and Pollution: Toward an Abolitionist Framework within Environmental Justice” (bachelor's thesis, Pomona College, 2018).
. A major possible exception is Connie Chiang’s Nature behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese American Incarceration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), though it covers an institution that predates what most would agree is the beginning of mass incarceration. See also Rose Braz and Craig Gilmore, “Joining Forces: Prisons and Environmental Justice in Recent California Organizing,” Radical History Review 2006, no. 96 (2006): 95-111.
. Rebecca M. McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Vintage, 2016); and Victoria Law, Resistance behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012).
. Steven Blakemore and Jon Noble, “Whitman and ‘The Indian Problem’: The Texts and Contexts of ‘Song of the Redwood-Tree,’” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 22, no. 2 (2004): 4.
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Xander Lenc. Review of Hall Jr., Clarence Jefferson, A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York's North Country.
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