The Courts at Clinton — Another Look

Courts at Clinton Freiwald 2.jpg

A segment of the courts in Clinton’s North Yard, photographed by the late Josh Freiwald, Sep., 1972

I noted in a blog post, here, three years ago that I was curious about how much change and how much stability Clinton Correctional Facility’s “courts” had undergone since my 1972 study of that remarkable institution.  As my post reported, I found little help regarding my question on the web and had to settle for looking at Google Earth shots of Clinton’s North Yard from very high altitude to assess change.

More recently, word arrived that Ben Stiller had succeeded, after much effort, in gaining access to Clinton’s interior, including the courts, for shooting his Showtime series titled “Escape At Dannemora.”  Naturally, I was interested to see how much light might be shed on my question by his photographic work.

The first shot I saw was the one that appeared in an article on Stiller’s successful bid to gain access to Clinton, which appeared in Variety online on November 15, 2018.  It wasn’t a great shot for my purpose, but it still spoke volumes.

Stiller at Clinton.jpg

A yellow haze hangs over the yard, but the furnishings downhill from Stiller’s production team suggests a much more standardized or uniform outfitting for the courts than I saw in 1972.  There appear to be two “heights” to the furnishings, tabletop height and chair height, the latter including storage units and stovetops.  Only the short smokestacks attached to stoves exceed the tabletop height. 

Now contrast Stiller’s picture one of the many shots the late Joshua Freiwald took in our study 46 years ago (below).  The smokestacks are taller and the courts appear to have a more variegated, even ramshackle, and individualized appearance.

Courts at Clinton Freiwald 3.jpg

I haven’t been able to find comparable camera angles in Stiller’s and Freiwald’s shots.  Freiwald, for one thing, did all his shooting from atop the high wall around the North Yard; he never came down into the yard itself, as Stiller’s team did.

Below, another Stiller shot, this one borrowed from his Showtime series’ trailer, here.   In this shot the North Yard’s courts take on a more rugged appearance — and even suggest, based on the buttressing in evidence, that a good deal of stonework has taken place on the hillside over the years.  Yet the furnishings in each court patio still evidence the greater uniformity I’ve mentioned.  (Stiller discusses the filming of this North Yard scene at YouTube, here.)

Courts at Clinton from Stillers trailer.jpg

Contrast the above shot taken from the trailer, once again, with one of Freiwald’s photos (below).  My eye sees less stonework and, once again, more variegation and individuality in the “old” courts of the early 1970s.  This was a tentative conclusion I reached after looking at Google Earth shots of the courts three years ago — now lent a measure of confirmation by Stiller’s more detailed views.

Courts at Clinton Freiwald 1.jpg

In looking on the web just earlier today for additional images of the courts I ran across a link offering a full-copy download of the 1973 edition of Architectural Record in which images of the North Yard from our study were first made available to the architectural community.  (The link is here — but beware, it’s a huge, 150MB+, download!)  The journal’s article included a final photo showing the members of the Kaplan and McLaughlin project team that conducted the study of Clinton’s entire campus and plant in 1972, the year following the tragedy at Attica.  Yours truly is fourth from the left.  I wasn’t actually a regular employee of K and A, just a ringer brought in specifically for the North Yard segment of the study.

Courts at Clinton - project team - AR - 1973.jpg

I remember only two of the guys pictured.  Roy Latka (leftmost) was a young architect who had not long before returned from service as an Army officer in Vietnam.  I liked him a lot.  (I read this afternoon that he, later in his career, became president of kmd — way to go, Roy!)  Herb McLaughlin, who recently passed away, was one of the firm’s two principals.  I’d had worked with him and his firm on other studies of constructed spaces before the Clinton project.  And I always had the sense that he had to go out on a limb to trust me with the study assignments I received — and I appreciated that from him.

The Clinton courts study turned out to be my last venture into this kind of sociology for architects.  I was already working at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley in 1972 and actually had to take a two- or three-week leave of absence to go to upstate New York and take on this study.

A final word about change.  I’m not surprised that the courts look — and probably are — different now.  I’d mentioned the important place and likelihood of change in the text of my 1972 report.  “Change seems to be the hallmark of prison spaces whose function is not made immutable by fixed facilities,” I wrote. “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.”  My old report’s text also noted the perception among some inmates, at the time, that the courts were in decline — were “not as nice as they used to be.”  One of the sources of this change, interviewees told me, was a recent influx of shorter-term inmates — inmates, because they weren’t going to be there long, didn’t value the courts’ modest amenities the way inmates with longer terms did.

Change will doubtless continue happening.  I’m just glad to see the courts are still there and likely serving some of the same functions they did when I first saw them so very long ago.

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