About 90 miles north of New York City, as you round a bend north of Ellenville on Route 209, and head into the heart of the hamlet of Napanoch, you see a large cornfield to your right. Then looming above the trees at the far edge of the field against the background of the jagged Shawangunk Mountain Ridge, you glimpse something extraordinary, almost medieval; a huge structure with a pyramid-shaped green roof, fortified by battlements and cone-capped turrets at the corners. If you take the next right, you cross a bridge over a creek and then see, beyond a broad expanse of lawn, an immense castle-like edifice with long, high walls of rugged stone, stretching far out to either side. It's like an upstate cloisters - a fortress, with the mountains in back and the Rondout Creek in the front as natural defenses. This, a sign informs you, is the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. It is a state prison. Of the 71 correctional institutions operated by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, it is one of the oldest: Only eight institutions in the state prison system existed when Eastern opened in 1900.
That view from the highway, though increasingly obscured by rising trees has changed little, with some exceptions. The copper roof is green now after a century of oxidation. An administration building was added in the 1960s, replacing the old front porch, and parking areas were expanded as staffing increased. A few hundred feet to the north, a medium security "annex," enclosed by a fence, was erected in the 1980s.
By contrast, the view seen of the outside world has changed greatly since that time. From the prison's front gate, an observer could have watched as the barge yielded to the locomotive, and the locomotive gave way to the automobile. Eastern's construction relied on the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which provided a means for transporting materials to the site. But by the end of 1901, the 73-year old man-made waterway - long a prime mover in the development of Napanoch and surrounding communities - was no longer in use, having been made obsolete by the more efficient railroad system. After 1902, when it at last reached Napanoch, the Ontario Western Railway was the primary means of transporting prisoners and supplies. The railroad would in turn also be superseded. Better roads, cars, and trucks closed the section of track running through the prison grounds in the 1950s, but provided the institution with an extraordinarily mobile and diversified workforce. Though its appearance remains familiar, Eastern has adapted as times - and its mission - have changed.
Conceived as a "reformatory," linked in purpose with Elmira, it was intended as a more helpful and hopeful place than the state prisons. The site was selected on the strength of its farmable land, fresh water, ready supply of lumber and stone, and its proximity to existing and planned transportation systems.
Construction started in the Fall, 1894, and the institution received its first prisoners on October 1, 1900. In 1921, it was designated as an institution for "defective delinquents" - the first of its kind in the United States and probably in the world. Some 45 years later, advances in IQ testing, together with a new emphasis on civil liberties, closed the Institution for Defective Delinquents and Napanoch reverted to its original function, a reformatory for younger inmates. Since 1973, it has functioned as a maximum-security correctional facility for adult male felons 16 and older.
The phase-out of the defective delinquent program occurred just as correctional systems in New York and other states were entering a turbulent period that would persist for about 15 years. The civil rights movement energized increasingly minority prison populations to challenge correctional authority and riots focused public attention on prisons, speeding the process of change in the way they were administered.
Simultaneously, the prisons were undergoing the effects of a get-tough stance against street crime and drug abuse. A 500 percent explosion in the prison population precipitated a building boom that brought the annex and Ulster Correctional Facility (a separately administered receiving and classification institution) to the Napanoch site.
Eastern played a leadership role in bringing New York's correctional system out of the turmoil and into a sustained period of effective administration and programming. The challenge to authority that lasted roughly from 1965 to 1980, as well as society's changing priorities for its criminal justice system, brought an end to many old-fashioned attitudes and practices. Paradoxically, these changes served to strengthen correctional administration. Arbitrariness and favoritism were replaced by clear, written policies and procedures that led not only to greater fairness but also to a greater degree of control. The successful adjustment, through standardization and consistency, was symbolized in 1982 when Eastern became the first facility in New York to be accredited by the American Correctional Association.
Accreditation is an ongoing process that has become a tradition at Eastern. It has been reaccredited every three years, most recently in 1998, each time undergoing a critical examination and reevaluation of every detail of its philosophy and operations. Priority has been given to staff training and professionalism including the on-site availability of college classes. Innovative inmate programs have been initiated: Eastern now offers computer literacy and repair classes, a residential housing and training program for visually and hearing impaired inmates, a Braille translation program benefiting public school children, and a therapeutic community treatment program for annex inmates with dual substance abuse/domestic violence problems. The facility has developed and maintained a full range of, inmate work programs, while always striving for quality. This "can do" spirit is exemplified by the achievements of Eastern's Colony Farm, acknowledged by the American Dairy Association with a Dairy of Distinction Award in 1996. And Eastern has also emphasized service to the community, cementing the positive relations it has enjoyed with its neighbors for 100 years.
Today, a number of Eastern's traditions as well as recent innovations are now standard practice in correctional facilities throughout New York State and in other correctional jurisdictions in the United States. This quality of preserving traditions while fostering creative adaptations will serve Eastern well as it passes the centennial mark and enters the 21st century.