The Eastern Story

As you round a bend north of Ellenville on Route 209, 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: 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.

Eastern, located in Napanoch, NY, approximately 90 miles north of NYC, is one of 71 correctional institutions operated by the NYS Dept. of Correctional Services. It is one of the oldest: only eight institutions in the state prison system existed when Eastern opened 100 years ago.

Though the view from the highway is increasingly obscured by rising trees, the sight has changed little in 100 years. The copper roof is green now after a century of oxidation. Additional structures have been built inside the walls, including the unique "green stamp" chapel. Outside the walls, a medium security "annex," enclosed by a fence, was erected in the 1980s. A few hundred yards to the north is a large new complex of low buildings encircled by a razor ribbon topped fence: these buildings constitute the Ulster Correctional Facility, a separately administered receiving and classification institution.

Eastern tiers.

The institution received its first prisoners on October 1, 1900. It was intended as a "reformatory" then, a more helpful and hopeful place than the state prisons. In 1921, it was designated as an institution for "defective delinquents" -- the first of its kind in the U.S. 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 NY 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 at Attica and elsewhere-focused public attention on prisons and sped the process of change in the way prisons were administered. Eastern itself was the scene of a riot in 1977. Two years later, uniformed employees across New York's prison system also demanded to be heard, and engaged in an unprecedented 16-day strike against the state.

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 reception center 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 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. . . .

Innovative programs have been initiated: Eastern now offers 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 inmates with dual substance abuse/domestic violence problems. . . . The achievements of Eastern's Colony Farm were recognized by the American Dairy Association with a Dairy of Distinction Award in 1996. Eastern also emphasized service to the community, cementing the positive relations it has enjoyed with its neighbors for 100 years.

Eastern staff are justifiably proud of their traditions as well as their recent innovations, many of which are now standard practice in correctional facilities throughout NYS and in other correctional jurisdictions in the U.S. This quality of preserving traditions while fostering creative adaptations will serve Eastern well as it observes its centennial and enters the 21th century.

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