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North Country Loses a Major Employer — a Prison 

click to enlarge DAVID JUNKIN
  • David Junkin

Nearly a quarter of the residents of Chateaugay, N.Y., came to a rally at the local park. Schoolchildren drew up posters warning that donations to their soccer leagues would plummet. And local bigwigs rented a bus and drove 200 miles south to plead their case in Albany.

Last year's effort to save the Chateaugay Correctional Facility from state-mandated closure was a herculean one for this town of 2,700 near the Canadian border.

"It was awesome," said Wendy Jones, who owns a Chateaugay deli and convenience store. "And it fell on deaf ears."

Next week, New York State will officially close the prison, eliminating more than 100 jobs and an economic lifeline in one of the poorest regions in the state.

Summer visitors to the Adirondacks remember the shimmering lakes, green mountains and kitschy tourist traps. But much of the region's economy, once reliant on timbering and farming, has in recent decades come to depend on a less romantic revenue source: housing criminals.

Desperate for middle-class jobs, small towns throughout the Adirondacks region enthusiastically accepted facilities to hold thousands of inmates, mostly from New York City. The yellowish haze that can sometimes be seen over the Adirondacks from downtown Burlington isn't pollution; it's light from Dannemora's Clinton Correctional Facility, a high-security prison with 3,000 inmates known as "New York's Siberia."

By some measures, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has become the Adirondack's largest employer. But in recent years, as crime rates have fallen and sentencing laws have been relaxed, New York has seen its inmate population decline and has begun shuttering prisons.

"The good news is crime is down and our prisons have fewer people in them," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told legislators during his 2014 State of the State address. "We are reducing the madness of an incarceration society and ending a system of unnecessary human and financial waste. And now we have eliminated 5,500 prison beds."

Good news — for many. But not for Chateaugay.

"It's a depressed area," said Chateaugay Town Supervisor Don Billow. "There aren't a lot of good-paying jobs here. Our young people go to college and don't come back. It's very significant — 111 good-paying jobs. It's going to be affecting the whole town and the area. They send their kids to schools, shop, pay taxes. We don't know what's going to happen."

Their Town

Just north of the Adirondack Park and five miles south of the Canadian border, Chateaugay could never be described as prosperous — even in good times.

But the town exudes spirit. A welcoming sign on the side of Route 11 earnestly announces three points of local pride: Chateaugay is the oldest town in Franklin County, founded in 1799; the cheese produced at the local plant was named the best in the country in 2007; and the boys' basketball team won a state championship in 2008.

In the village, it seems there's a historic marker on every block — the site of Chateaugay's oldest house, a soldiers' cemetery. The historical society has dutifully commemorated the town's first foundry and tannery.

For most of its history, Chateaugay was a farming community. Old photos of downtown show dozens of cattle being herded down the main drag.

As decades passed, larger companies gradually bought up small family farms and ran them with fewer hands. Young people born into farming families began to flee, prompting more sell-offs to bigger companies.

Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs — the area once had a General Electric plant — were shipped overseas or eliminated by mechanization.

Now Chateaugay Village has 23 storefronts, 15 of which are vacant — though one of those is temporarily hosting a food pantry. Three of the eight remaining downtown businesses have been converted to cheap apartments.

Franklin County's median per capita income is $19,800, ranking it 61st out of New York's 62 counties. Unemployment is higher than 8 percent, and 15 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Gabe Lopardo used to be one of six barbers in Chateaugay. Now, after more than 50 years of running a shop downtown, he is the only men's barber in Chateaugay and three other nearby towns. He charges $10 for a haircut.

On a recent weekday, with no customers in his shop, Lopardo peered out his window and remembered, building-by-building, what used to be.

"On the corner was a clothing store. Insurance office next door. Little drug store, and another one where the food pantry is. Two hardware stores. That next big building was a little-bit-of-everything store. We had a diner on the corner, and a restaurant next to that..."

Those businesses had vanished long before the state decided to shut down the prison, which was seen as a last resort to keep the town's economy from crumbling. Lopardo worries for the future.

"Band-Aid's gone," he said. "There's not much else we can do. It wasn't growing before. It's not going to grow. It's not going to attract any young people, that's for sure."

With the prison gone, the only major employer left in town is the McCadam Cheese Company plant. The company, owned by a Northeast dairy giant Agri-Mark, offers mostly blue-collar processing jobs at the plant.

Crime Paid

The Adirondacks region was an unlikely beneficiary of the national War on Drugs — a reaction to rising crime in urban areas such as New York City in the 1970s. Policy makers increased penalties for drug offenses and hired more cops. The federal government in 1994 pledged millions of dollars to help build prisons for states that enacted "truth in sentencing laws."

The result: more inmates. New York's prison population more than doubled between 1985 and 1999, from 32,000 to 72,000.

Where would all the new inmates go? Many communities resisted prison-building proposals, for obvious reasons. But others around the Adirondacks rolled out the red carpet, hosting as many as 19 correctional facilities at one time. Some were built from scratch. Others were housed in abandoned schools or other renovated buildings.

The town of Moriah, reeling from the closure of an iron mine, cheered the opening of Moriah Shock Correctional Facility, which brought more than 100 jobs when it was built in 1989.

In 1993, Chateaugay welcomed construction of a medium-security facility on a former farm the state bought just a couple of miles east of the village.

Towns thought they had stumbled on a business that would be immune from economic downturns. But like family farming and light manufacturing, the inmate business has also turned out to be vulnerable to changing times.

The crime rate has fallen in New York and much of the country. And after years of watching prisons consume an ever-growing chunk of state budgets to warehouse nonviolent offenders, lawmakers have relaxed sentencing guidelines for drug crimes.

Tax revenue shortfalls from the Great Recession forced the issue.

In Franklin County, Camp Gabriels closed in 2009, and Lyon Mountain went in 2011, taking a total of more than 200 jobs. People in Chateaugay watched those developments nervously, but held out hope their prison might be spared because it was one of the newest in the state.

State law requires towns get a one-year notice before a prison is closed. Last July, Billow got a call from Cuomo's office. Chateaugay's days were numbered.

The town tried to fight back. Residents created a 30-page glossy pamphlet stating all the reasons that Chateaugay needed the prison, and why the state needed Chateaugay: The prison had always operated near capacity and was more financially efficient than its peers, they argued. Planned construction of wind towers would reduce the prison's utility bills.

Clearly concerned that 111 jobs would seem negligible to officials from larger communities, they compared the impact to losing 6,000 jobs in Brooklyn.

"The are no equivalent jobs in Franklin County to replace these positions," the residents wrote. "The area simply will not recover."

Local officials brought as many brochures to Albany as they could afford to print.

"We thought we had a chance. We worked our tail off, to try," Billow said. "They listened, but didn't do nothing. They sat there with poker faces."

Worse, most of the Chateaugay inmates were removed before the one-year notice was up, and their former guards have either lost their jobs or have been reassigned accordingly. While there is no official count, locals say that some correctional officers have put their houses on the market, and others are enduring the longer commutes to other prisons, for now.

Chateaugay Today

Neatly manicured green fields sat unused behind two-story barbed wire fences last week at Chateaugay Correctional Facility. The guard posts were empty. A flagpole jangled in the gentle breeze.

A few guards milled casually in the lobby beneath a sign that read "Attitude Makes the Difference." A prison official confirmed that inmates were no longer there, and said the few remaining workers were removing equipment.

Jones, the deli owner, said her business has already taken a huge hit. Guards used to stop by Wendy's Quick Stop during their morning and evening commutes. So did family members visiting inmates. They did a brisk delivery business at lunchtime.

"It was a seven-day-a-week thing," Jones said. "You close something like that ... it's a domino effect. I've lost so much business. A lot of people stopped coming and going."

Prospects for replacing the lost jobs are dim. Town officials are crossing their fingers for a $200,000 state grant to help them try to lure a new business to the facility, though there are few ideas of what might come.

Billow is holding out hope. Maybe crime will tick up, he said. Maybe the state will need Chateaugay again.

"It may come around," he said. "Some of those people they released may come back, and they may need the space."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Another North Country Town Loses a Major Employer — the Prison"
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Mark Davis

Mark Davis

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Mark Davis is a Seven Days staff writer.

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