Editor’s note: How could I resist?
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.
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.