The Prison in Dannemora Has a Bizarre, Fascinating History

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Photo: Joshua Freiwald

More than four decades before two inmates slipped out of the prison walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, photographer Joshua Freiwald arrived at the prison for his own week-long stay. He checked in not as an inmate, but a documentarian: He had been tasked with photographing the maximum-security prison for Kaplan, McLaughlin & Diaz, an architecture firm assigned to survey New York’s prisons following the Attica riots in 1971.

There, Freiwald uncovered some of the most oddball structures he’d ever seen: rows and rows of plots in the prison yard, where groups of inmates gathered during rec time. The “courts” as they were known — also apparently referred to as “the Jungle” by inmates – each belonged to a small group who used them to play cards, cook meals, grow vegetables, and even, Freiwald observed, pray. They were run by a manager – essentially the “owner” of the lot — and had an assistant manager. Inmates were invited to join. They could also be kicked out. The courts were separated by a small, white picket fence about a foot and a half high. Most strangely for a prison, the courts were filled with furniture — tables, Adirondack chairs, cabinets, even stoves and cooking appliances. Guards apparently watched over the courts in what looked like lifeguard chairs, staring out over a beach of mismatched household furnishings. The prison now known for its fugitives was also a place that seemed to let its prisoners piece together something of a refuge. 

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Photo: Joshua Freiwald

It was a very distinctive area because they were made by the prisoners, for the prisoners,” Freiwald said. Freiwald said the courts date back from the prison’s opening, back in the 1840s, when its inmates worked in the local mines. But sociologist Ron Roizen, who wrote a report for the same architecture firm that also hired Freiwald, said he believed they had been constructed as a reward for the prisoners’ work in supporting the effort during World War II. Either way, both were shocked by the scene in Clinton’s yards. “I was blown away,” Rozien said. “I still think it’s one of the most astonishing institutions in the American prison world.”

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Photo: Joshua Freiwald
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Photo: Joshua Freiwald

A state Department of Corrections official confirmed that the courts still exist, but wasn’t able to say whether they looked as they did in the 1970s shots. Roizen also tried to follow up on his research to see how the courts had evolved since his original report, but he wasn’t able to move forward with the prison administration. 

Freiwald, who is 80 and still photographing, was born in the Bronx but has spent most of his career in California. He said despite the courts, Clinton was a “hard-time” place when he visited, and pretty dangerous — especially to take pictures. Freiwald had to get on the prison radio to state his case and let the inmates know they could refuse to be in the photos. The next day when he started to shoot, the prisoners didn’t turn him away. He’d won them over — with his New York accent. “You’re one of us,” they told him, and he worked, uninterrupted.

The courts were one of the most photogenic areas I’d ever encountered,” Freiwald said, “The photographs are — quite I don’t know how to say — they are compelling. I was quite fortunate, to tell you the truth.” 

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Photo: Joshua Freiwald
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Photo: Joshua Freiwald
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Photo: Joshua Freiwald
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Photo: Joshua Freiwald