The Dannemora Dilemma
NOT many small American towns stick in your memory 10 years after you last drove through them. But New York’s Dannemora, site of last weekend’s remarkable prison break, is a vivid exception.
Dannemora is way up north — north of Albany, north of the Saratoga races, north of Lake George and Lake Placid, barely inside the northern border of the Adirondack Park. You drive through emptiness to get there, and what you find when you arrive is schizophrenic. Coming down the main street, to your left is a normal upstate town — the car dealer, the post office, the Stewart’s market, a lot of shingled storefronts in the shadow of mountains.
But to your right, block after block, there’s just a prison wall — looming, pressing, dominating, like a glacier inching down from Canada, or something out of “Game of Thrones.”
I was there in high summer, and my first thought was “Siberia.” And “Little Siberia” turned out to be the prison’s nickname.
We’ve been debating criminal justice reform in earnest ever since Ferguson exploded last summer, with policing as the focal point. But our archipelago of prisons, the Dannemora-like places spread around the country, are as much the issue as any abuses by the police.
All told, our prisons house around 2.2 million Americans, leaving the land of the free with the world’s highest incarceration rate. And they house them, often, in conditions that make a mockery of our supposed ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment: gang-dominated, rife with rape, ruled by disciplinary measures (particularly the use of solitary confinement) that meet a reasonable definition of torture.
When Americans debate which feature of our contemporary life will look most morally scandalous in hindsight, the answers usually break down along left-right lines. But there’s increasing agreement across ideological lines — uniting conservative evangelicals and civil rights leaders, the Koch brothers and Eric Holder — that our prison system has become a particularly obvious moral stain.
This agreement has borne fruit: Amid a bipartisan, multistate push, the incarceration rate has fallen since 2007. And the crime rate has stayed low, at least till now, which has both helped the trend along (low crime rates mean fewer new prisoners) and sustained political space for pushing further.
The as-yet-unanswered question, though, is how far the push can go. And if the Siberian strangeness of Dannemora makes the case for reform, the escape there last week is a reminder of the dilemma for reformers.
Richard Matt and David Sweat, the escapees, may have imitated Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.” But no sane person would root for them — both murderers, Matt a charismatic psychopath — to end up free and clear in Zihuatanejo.