Enlargement of the right side of the NYCHS scan of the Clinton Prison
illustration in the 1869 State Senate documents volume.*

 a brief history of clinton prison
(part 3: after the mine closed)

by Ron Roizen

* NYCHS "zoomed in" on four sections of the right side of its Clinton Prison illustration scan.

That side's lower left quarter section detail depicts smoke billowing from the "Forge Shop" ("e") and passing over the "Dwelling for Clerk and Principal Keeper" ("g").

By 1877 the matter of contract vs. state-use labor was left to the newly appointed Superintendent of State Prisons, Louis D. Pilsbury. In order to maximize the income-creating powers of the system, old and infirm inmates were transferred to Clinton from Sing Sing and Auburn.

"Mechanics and able bodied men" were moved from Clinton to other institutions. Clinton was put on state-use work manufacturing woodenware, brushes, brooms, baskets and other articles that could be easily made for use in other prisons.

In 1878 the problem of Clinton's isolation was tackled. A railroad was to be built between Dannemora and Plattsburgh. As a result of its completion by inmate labor, it was possible to enter into a contract for the labor of 450 men in the production of fur hats.

The railroad, however, proved to be too expensive, and it was leased to the Chateaugay Railroad Company. An 1879 report declared that the railroad was a desirable step anyway.

In 1877 prison enlargement -- by 656 new cells -- was begun. However, in 1881, when the expansion was completed, the State prison population was so low that no new occupants could be found for the new cells. (C, p. 7)

Although the prison's capacity was now 1200, it was not until 1893 that the population reached 1000.

The hat production contract expired in 1883 and by this time contract labor was prohibited again. In this year, the question of contract vs. state-use labor was submitted to the voters. The majority favored state-use, and prisons again were idle and demoralized. Because no funds were appropriated for the alternative employment of prisoners, much of the inmate population did nothing. . . .

Conditions in the State prisons deteriorated, however, and between 1883 and 1894 the laws evidenced the cyclical reversals. State account, state use, and contract labor became alternating statutes. The issue was finally laid to rest with the adoption of a new State Constitution by the voters in which contract labor was constitutionally banned and state-use became the law

The lower right quarter section detail depicts the stockade-type prison fence buttressed by strategically-placed auxiliary support beams.

Thus, virtually the entire period of the nineteenth century had focused on the problem of fitting the Auburn penitentiary system into a stable structured relationship to the civilian economy, To be sure, rehabilitation was also a goal.

But the rehabilitative virtues of hard work, silence, and dusk-to-dawn solitary confinement presented relatively few points of conflict between what was good for the inmate and what was good for the prison treasury. This being so, the preoccupations of the time were with economic questions.

With the ratification of a new State Constitution, however, the question of self-support was essentially changed. Penal institutions had had considerable exposure to the disciplinary consequences of too little work, however, and with the truncation of administrative flexibility in providing work, the officials' attentions were turned to the maintenance of order within the institution.

Thus it is not surprising that on January 1, 1897 -- the date of the new Constitution -- statewide prison officials also inaugurated a new system of prisoner classifications. Prisoners were classified A, B, or C:

  • A's had no prior felony terms,
  • B's had one, and
  • C's had two or more.

Clinton got C's (along with consumptive inmates from all of the institutions). Once the mix of prisoners and prisoner skills (such as they were) was no longer instrumental in the matter of having an appropriate labor supply within each institution, the grouping and separation of inmates became desirable for both security and salutory reasons.

The shift to a growing rehabilitative orientation is also suggested in the passage of legislation introducing indeterminate sentences in 1901.

The '97 system of prisoner classification proved unworkable however, because it failed to create inducements for inmate good behavior. Thus, in 1914, a new system was fielded that divided inmates into three Grades: First, Second, Third, based on inmate behavior. Third Grades were incorrigible and insubordinate; Clinton received them.

The upper left quarter section detail depicts a horse-drawn wagon on a road to a mine outside the prison, while within the prison complex, smoke rises from "Coal Kilns" ("h") and the "Rolling Mill" ("i").

The period following the Great War and the passage of the Volstead Act was one of rising crime and high public concern for protection. The increasing number of laws on the books, the cries for intensified prosecutions, and a lengthening trend in sentences made the decade of the 1920s a period in which crowded, unsanitary conditions, and largely idle (by previous standards) circumstances prevailed in state prisons and federal penitentiaries across the land.

The passage of the Baumes laws in New York, which multiplied sentence lengths and negatively affected the "good time" of prisoners already serving their time, proved to be too much for the inmates. Riots struck Clinton and Auburn in 1929.

The circumstances were general to a wider domain, however. In the space of a few days in 1929, prison riots occurred in New York, Kansas, and California state institutions and also at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. The cry went out for "bigger and better" prisons, and the decade of the thirties saw vast construction, in part because of the availability of a new kind of labor force created by the Depression.

Clinton Prison was practically rebuilt during this period, and the airy hugeness and modernity of the new constructions were seen as the solution to the pre-30s situation. Cellblocks, service buildings, and supporting structures (power house, etc.) were constructed throughout the decade.

The Second World War generated a brief period in which, perhaps, the good old days of profitable institutions was momentarily alive.

Between 1942 and 1945 the inmates of the textile department worked two shifts, the second from mid-afternoon to 10:30 P. M. on the production of Osnaburg Cloth for the Federal government. In addition, work was done for the Navy, and at the same time the shops continued to make cotton cloth of various types to meet the needs of the State institutions.

In connection with the institution's war effort, it was awarded the War Production Board's National Service Certificate of Merit at a formal ceremony on September 20, 1943. This particular award was given to correctional institutions which showed excellence in the production of war materials, consideration being given to available facilities and equipment, although extra effort and achievement were said to be the fundamental consideration. (C, p. 16)

The upper right quarter section detail depicts the "Hall Mine" ("q") outside the prison.

The post-war period has seen many new problems and challenges to the penitentiary institution; some of the most important of these are architectural. The "bigger and better" prison of the 1930s lost favor as an awareness of the fact that no matter how efficient, sanitary, or well intentioned was the operation of these institutions, size itself was the overriding factor that determined what happened within them. This social change has not affected prisons alone, but has also influenced mental health, educational, and other large institutions.

On the basis of the foregoing review, it is evident that each generation attempts to relieve the excesses of its predecessor.

Thus, the history of Clinton prison is a story of counterpoint, in which the interplay of historical forces is constantly being herded toward equilibrium, and the sources of disequilibrium in the immediate past become the guidelines for the reforms of the present.

Through it all, the structure of the incarceration problem does not seem to us to have changed much, and the application of fashionable palliatives in the manner of the past 130 years would seem to be an unlikely source of significant change.

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