Queensborough Professor Authors New Book, A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country
“Incarceration affects all of us,” said Clarence Jefferson Hall, Jr., Assistant Professor of History at Queensborough Community College, and author of a new book, A Prison in the Woods: Environment and Incarceration in New York’s North Country.
“Even if you don't have family members in prison, even if your relatives, friends or neighbors don’t work in a prison, you are connected to this system in some way or another.
Hall grew up near Plattsburgh, New York. Hall’s father grew up in Dannemora, New York and worked for the New York State Department of correctional services as an officer for 25 years.
Hall’s formative years were defined in large part by the ways in which his father’s career affected the day-to-day life of the family. His father often brought home food that had been cooked by the incarcerated men in the prison kitchen, as well as Christmas decorations made in the prison ceramics studio.
“I encourage awareness in my students,” said Hall, who was hired at Queensborough, on the tenure track, in 2016. “I talk with students in my classes about incarceration and how they might be sitting at a desk that was manufactured in a prison, or taking an exam in a Blue Book that was printed in a prison, or they might be hiking on a trail in the Adirondacks that was created by people incarcerated in prison. It’s a sad six degrees of separation.”
Hall’s book tells the histories of these connections; race, class and the nature of incarceration; legacies of mining in Upstate New York and environmental politics associated with prison placement, construction and development.
In the early years of his career, Hall’s father transported prisoners, often to NYC, so they could visit family members who were hospitalized, or to attend the funerals of family members.
“One day, my father parked the prison van in our driveway because he forgot something at the house. I was eight years old. I will never forget the image of those incarcerated men shackled inside the van.”
The North Country is a region that is over 95% white; prisons are largely staffed by white employees; yet 80% or more of the incarcerated population are people of color.
Hall explains that North Country prison history goes back to the 19th century. As more and more prisons were built, so did the friction between the public and the government.
Plans for increased incarceration and new prisons were contested, projects were challenged because they were viewed as destructive to the local environment and, in many cases, prisons did not deliver to surrounding communities – ravaged by unemployment – promised economic benefits according to Hall.
“My research showed that while some people got jobs, including my father and lots of other people, there was and is chronic poverty. Businesses have been boarded up and closed for years. Some towns have virtually no traffic.”
“My own father’s childhood was rooted in chaos and extreme poverty, and while he had a steady job, I think he felt unfulfilled and had bigger aspirations for himself. He never found his place in the world.”
“I remember him using racial slurs and I challenged him, ‘what benefit are you getting from using that racist language, how is it benefiting you personally to participate in that racism?’ [After that] I never heard him use racial slurs again, at least not in my presence.”
When Hall was in graduate school and he needed to choose his dissertation topic it occurred to him that virtually nothing had been written on prisons in the North Country.
His dissertation research proved to be difficult as the state only saves what the state archives deems historically significant. A freedom-of-information request, however, made to the Adirondack Park Agency, the agency that develops long-range public and private land use plans including the oversight and regulation of prison construction and development in its jurisdiction, produced an avalanche of useful files.
“About a month later, I received some mail and there were CDs inside with about 150,000 pages of documents from the agency.”
The documents covered the State Department of Correctional Services, the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and hundreds of letters written by local residents as well as press clippings.
“One of the big stories I uncovered is that the prisons were extremely controversial. Local residents and opposition groups demanded that prisons be shielded from view because they were afraid that prisons would drive away tourism. Also, there was a view that people would not escape from the prisons because of the surrounding wilderness. As I said to a journalist a few years ago, if they want to get out and they're persistent enough they'll find their way out.”
When Queensborough curtailed campus operations due to Covid-19 last March, Hall made an escape of his own from his apartment in the City, back to the house where he grew up, near siblings and extended family. Once the campus fully reopens, he plans to return to his place.
“When I went skiing a few weeks ago in Adirondack Park, I stopped and realized this trail, used for the 1980 Winter Olympics, was prepared by people in prison. The landscape that we inhabit, in many cases, has either been built or shaped by the prison system, either directly by people incarcerated doing labor or through products that are made in prison.”
Being back in the North Country also brings back memories of his late father. “My father didn't live long enough to see my book published, but he knew what I was working on and came to understand the sort of racist elements in the [judicial system]. He evolved into a better person and I am grateful I could see that evolution over time.”