'the courts' of clinton prison
(part 4: beginnings & growth of the courts)
by Ron Roizen
Change seems to be the hallmark of prison spaces whose function is not made immutable by fixed facilities. Slack space, if we can call it that, absorbs the dynamic energies of the institution. Thus, with regard to the courts, even photographs taken only a year or two ago suggest a rather different space. Nailed-down facilities and functions have a long history in prison architecture. The assumption of aggressive and dangerous inmates has operated to minimize the availability of things loose, throwable, detachable and so forth. Speaking to the National Prison Congress of 1886, Rutherford B. Hayes opined [#10] that ...
A prison structure should represent strength and durability, as it is a building not for a day but for the future, as well as for the present. There should be no weak points in construction, inviting the crafty to deeds of daring and hazard, in order to regain liberty.
From within this view, slack or open-ended space is a danger. There is not much of it in a typical jail or prison of Clinton's vintage.
Documentary evidence was a luxury in this case, although -- thanks to the hurried ransacking of several New York City libraries by Elizabeth White -- several mentions of the courts were unearthed.
Oral histories were taken from two respondents-both staff members. Virtually everyone else I spoke with had no idea how the courts' originated. For most, it was a fixture of the environment requiring no explanation. What documentary evidence we have collected has been of little help. Mancusi wrote that the court system grew ". . . from a piece of land where some individuals and groups exercised squatter's rights. . . ." [#11]
Elsewhere, Mancusi reports that the terraces have been constructed since about 1930, but no evidence 12 to this effect is given. A 1956 article in the Saturday Evening Post [#12] includes a photograph of the courts area which reveals a substantially similar arrangement as that which would be found today.
A dramatized escape effort in Bonn's novel which places the year of the escape at 1947 -- describes the prisoner making his way through the "tables and hummocks" of the North Yard. A 1949 issue of Correction [#13] , the official publication of the New York State Department of Correction, concerning Clinton history from 1855-1949 makes no mention of the courts, probably by reason of administrative fastidiousness rather than the courts' nonexistence. Sundry articles published in 1929, following the July 22 riot, are equally dumb on the subject.
One staff respondent claimed to have visited the prison to attend an inmate-outsider baseball game on the Sunday before the Monday riot of 1929. He said that the baseball field handicapped visiting teams because the outfield sloped up toward the wall-- an outfielder with an eye on a flyball was likely to lose his balance in pursuit of it. There were no courts then, he said, although small gardens may have existed in an area of the hillside close to the wall and distant from "homebase."
We conclude from this that the courts probably existed in some form prior to 1937 and probably did not exist in 1929. It is more unlikely that they existed before 1927, the year of the completion of the high, concrete perimeter wall. Gardens, however, may have been in the courts area earlier.
Whatever the origins, one gets the impression that the courts were neither particularly noticed nor particularly embraced for much of their history. The "hobo jungle" appearance may have been something of an embarrassment to both inmates and staff in more fastidious times.
The precise age of the courts, however, is less interesting than how they came about. Under this head, there are many factors that may be mentioned, but all of them have the explanatory status of necessary rather than sufficient conditions.
That is to say, we will make the statement that "were it not for "X" it would have been unlikely that the courts would have developed. The positive historical evolution of the courts is outside our grasp.
The concept "recreation" yard includes several -- in some cases rather disparate -- kinds of activities. Thus, it prescribes a framework of alternatives for a space that is declared recreational.
From a purely environmental perspective, it should be argued that the courts probably arose at all and arose where they did because the space was otherwise mor'te or less useless. In response to a question regarding the origins of the courts, one respondent said, "What else could they do with it?"
The "scarred hillside" described in Bonn's novel was certainly not suited to the conventional uses of a conventional recreation yard, That the space had little official value may be key to the possibility of development by the inmates. Where power is in short supply, the capacity to claim territory may be limited to the fringes or the discard of the powerful -- one is reminded of the historical reasons for the settlement of Salt Lake City.
Another noteworthy characteristic of the hillside is its impact on circulation. The "big mill" -- the yard walk so familiar in prison movies, in which most inmates walk round the yard in a big circle while others stand at the periphery or in the center -- is, of course, unsuitable for a hillside. One respondent reported that inmates in the late 30s would walk back and forth laterally across the hill. This was reported with a measure of bemusement.
I think that the most important feature of the hillside, in this respect, is the naturalness of sedentarianism. So far as hillside sedentarianism is viewed as natural, sitting and chatting and collecting together is not burdened with threatening overtones.
The practice of permitting prisoners to cultivate pocket gardens in plots adjacent to prison buildings seems to antedate the courts. The paucity of fresh vegetables may have stimulated this interest. This fact, however, is unknown.
In any case, the pocket garden precedent may be an important precursor to the development of the courts. The development, caringfor, and work expend on a space establishes proprietary claims as a matter of course.
The inmate clearing of the flat that now sites the basketball and handball courts also tended to create proprietary interests. Lockers and chairs, I was told, were moved to this area so that equipment for the competitors could be conveniently stored.
There are two other rather speculative historical factors that, perhaps, bear mention. First, the "siberian" isolation of Dannemora and the long winters perhaps engendered a benevolent attitude in the staff toward what simple enterprises and developments could be scratched out of the yard. The yard itself is not well-suited to conventional recreation throughout.
Secondly, the period of the 30s saw in Clinton many luminaries of the gangster world. These men may be recalled nostalgically by veteran guards in some cases; moreover, they may have carried to the prison something of the touch of glamorous celebrity. The veteran staff remembrances of the "old days" often seemed to suggest that these were times when inmates recognized the rules and, if caught and sent to prison, inmates considered it unfortunate but a risk that had been responsibly taken.
One gets the sense of both guard-inmate consensus surrounding the definition of the situation and a faint affection for simpler times. In any case, this value consensus and brush of glamor may have been instrumental in the development of the courts. Much of this discussion, it should be made clear, is simply historical fabrication on our part --nevertheless, the factors mentioned have functional meanings even without necessarily having historical verity.
Hence, regardless of the actual historical scenario of the courts, this scenario may provide us with insights'into the conditions which made their development possible if not necessary.
We have contradictory evidence concerning the date, but the post war period saw an accrual of too much inmate power and control in the inmate courts insofar as the staff was concerned. A land reform of sorts was undertaken in which the number of plots was increased from roughly 100 to roughly 300. The various rules covered above were introduced at the same time. Mancusi gives the date of the origin of the registration system as 1957 [#14]; a staff respondent put the time of the land reform just after World War IL The date, once again, is not so important as the fact that the courts achieved legitimate status within the institution. We tend to lean toward a year around 1945 for some official sanctioning of the courts. Mancusi reports that some member of the guard staff referred to this action as the creation of "Jackson's Fun Farm" (after the then warden) at the time. [#15] The credentialling of the courts, however, is an unusual case of the spontaneous development of an inmate institution.
Incidentally, the land itself was leveled into broad lateral tiers or steps and a collection of cement tabletops affixed to permanent posts were linearly distributed to the courts area. Thus, the courts were given official sanction at the price of official furniture.
The tables however were short-lived. Tabletops turned up in the partitions among courts; posts were left naked in the yard or appropriated for one or another makeshift function. The land itself seemed to tend back toward more irregular surfaces.
That the area was made possible by steep, ugly, useless space should caution architectural planners about the habit of assigning everything a spatial justification and making the functions of spaces preordained.
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