The Courts at Clinton Correctional Facility, a quick follow-up

Editor’s note:  How could I resist? 

The Courts, in Clinton Correctional Facility's North Yard (Photo:  Joshua Freiwald)

The Courts, in Clinton Correctional Facility’s North Yard (Photo: Joshua Freiwald, 1972)

A young journalist, Jen Kirby, telephoned me on June 9th.  She’d been researching the recent escape of two convicted murderers from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.  And in the process she’d stumbled upon Josh Freiwald’s eloquent photos and my old report on a remarkable anomaly that somehow, long ago emerged in Clinton’s North Yard — something called “The Courts.”  The 1972 study that produced both the photos and the report were occasioned by the uprising at Attica the year before.

Kirby’s photo-article on “The Courts” appeared online the following day in New York Magazine. It represented — to my knowledge, at least –the first time any general circulation publication had picked-up on the existence of this unlikely recreational venue inside an American maximum security prison.  “The Courts” are — or, at least, were — a broad collection of inmate-“owned” and inmate-run patios  spread across a sloping hillside inside the prison wall.  Kirby’s brief report left two interesting questions hanging:  When did “The Courts” emerge at Clinton, and what is their current condition?    

Kirby’s article noted that photographer Freiwald suggested they dated “from the prison’s opening, back in the 1840s, when its inmates worked in the local mines.”  I, on the other hand, as Kirby’s article also noted, held that they’d been “constructed as a reward for the prisoners’ work in supporting the effort during World War II.”  There’s of course a 100-year difference between those two historical conjectures.

Well, I did a little checking on the web this morning, to see if I could zero-in on an origin time.  The always useful Google Books led me to a recent volume titled Dannemora (Images of America) (Arcadia Publishing, 2015) by Rod Bigelow and Walter “Pete” Light. Therein, on page 104, appeared two images (below and below) that shed some much needed light.  (I’ve included Bigelow and Light’s captions with the images.)



The images are not specifically dated, but they suggest, perhaps, having been taken sometime in the pre-construction 1930s or over the 1920s.  The upper image comports with a description of  pre-courts yard use and activity offered by Willie Sutton in his biography, I, Willie Sutton (H. Wolff, 1953), coauthored with Quentin Reynolds.  “During the free time in the yard,” Sutton’s account relayed, “the inmates gathered in small groups.  You couldn’t force your way into any of these groups — you had to be invited” (p. 95).

We were allowed three hours a day in the yard.  Guard houses were perched atop the four walls, and in the middle of the yard was a tower manned with guards with machine guns.  We were allowed to play baseball, handball, and an Italian game, bocci ball, much like the English game of bowls.  I learned chess, and found a half-dozen inmates who were enthusiastic players.  But whether we were playing handball or chess, we could always feel the eyes of the guards.  (p. 154)

 Sutton was an inmate at Clinton, says one newspaper source, for four years, from 1925 to 1929.

Regarding the current state of “The Courts” in Clinton’s North Yard, neither Kirby nor I have had much luck wedging any useful information out of the facility’s staff.  I tried to a couple years ago, prompted by the 40-year anniversary of my visit there.  I was curious about what effects the passage of four decades might have had.  Kirby relayed that officials told her the courts still existed but they “couldn’t say” whether they were the same as they were in 1972.

Clinton North Yard - Google Earth

Without any other avenues to try, I turned to Google Earth.  This aerial shot of the North Yard was dated September 8, 2014.  It shows some sort of organized development on the yard’s hillside, with a grid of walkways.  But the image is far less ramshackle and much more rectilinear than the way it looked in 1972.  Perhaps a recently released inmate who happens upon this blog post might be willing to bring us up to date on exactly what’s out there and how it’s organized.  The Google Earth image is just too inexact to provide anything beyond hints.


Note:  My old summary of Clinton’s history is available here.

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5 Responses to The Courts at Clinton Correctional Facility, a quick follow-up

  1. Margo Gill Linscott says:

    Interesting that one of our maximum security prisons is better furnished than the slums of Bombay…..says something about what it takes to be happy. They do have the criminal elements in common……reading ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts.

    • Shane Miller says:

      Yeah…..I don’t know how much safer the prison is than Bombay. And “better furnished” is pretty subjective. Having to mandatory go to the yard in one of those cold damn winters with state issued clothing absolutely sucks. You’re on top of a mountain with a great view of lake Champlain. so you have a never ending wind to top it off, and then you get a huge communal pot that you get a stack of firewood to burn so you can cook your own meals…It’s not as great as you think it is.

  2. ronroizen9 says:

    Just stumbled on this: An NPR report, dated June 13, 2015, suggests a continuing existence for “The Courts,” at least up until 10 years ago.

  3. Shane Miller says:

    Well I did time in NY from 2005-2009 and I can tell you that the definitely existed during those years. I was actually in a minimum (camp gabriels) at the time of the construction of a new hospital that was east of the North yard and my outdoor work crew was assigned to help with the furnishing of the hospital on the drive in we had to drive by the yard.
    The courts existed and a cross would be put up when a court became available for another group to put their bid in for one of the courts. So the courts are assigned to help eliminate disputes. The bids are based on seniority and a better court can be obtained and moved to by way of seniority. There are also outdoor showers (cold water only) on the corners of the yard. I hope this helps.

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