The Largest Maximum Security Prison in New York

The history inside the concrete confines of Clinton Correctional Facility.

Story by Andrea Guynup

Every day, hundreds of local residents enter what is commonly referred to as the little Siberia and hear the heavy steel door clang shut behind them, confining them in the largest maximum security prison in New York state.

To some, the prison is simply what lies behind the miles of gray concrete walls that rest along the rolling, Dannemora hills, and yet to many Northeast residents, Clinton Correctional Facility serves not only as a place of employment, but as part of a longtime family livelihood tradition.

"At one time, just about everyone who lived in the village worked here," said Peter Light, a retired correctional officer and founder of the Clinton Correctional Facility museum, located inside the building.

When it all began

The prison was established in 1845 after a period of steady unrest in New York. The small town of Dannemora was soon chosen as the third site for a state prison due to its prime location in the valley, the iron mines, and the hills of Lyon Mountain. It began as a small, outpost prison with a few small buildings surrounded by a wooden stockade fence.

Left side of the original prison
Illustration courtesy of State Senate documents.
Showing the left side of the prison, Clinton Correctional was initially constructed to hold about 500 inmates.

As the number of inmates continued to rise, the number of renovations and security measures increased to accommodate the growing population. For example, the surrounding wall that was first a wooden fence was soon reconstructed and built out of stone. According to Light, all the old stone cut for the original wall came from Lyon Mountain. Years later, as the prison continued to expand, the stone wall was replaced by high concrete walls, complete with enclosed guard towers.

Clinton Correctional was initially intended to house approximately five hundred inmates, and has since grown to hold more than 2,700, while employing over 1,400 officers. Due to the lack of transportation when the prison was constructed, employees were initially required to live in the village so they would be close in the event of a problem. As advances in transportation began, more local residents from outside of Dannemora began working at the facility. Soon, the prison became a traditional job opportunity for many local families.

"At one time, just about everyone who lived in the village worked here."

Attraction of Dannemora for criminals during the late 1800s

As tuberculosis began sweeping across the nation, Dannemora soon became the location of choice for many criminals. Many inmates fought off death as they became infected with tuberculosis, and doctors recommended that they be shipped upstate. The fresh air of the Adirondacks was known to help tuberculosis patients breath more easily. By 1941, the demand for a larger hospital on site led to the construction of the current Dannemora State Hospital.

"Inmates would come from all over New York to get a breath of fresh air."

The new hospital was built to accommodate two hundred inmates and served as a general doctor's office, a psychiatric facility, and tuberculosis hospital. After the rise of new medication during World War II, the number of tuberculosis patients at the prison slowly began to decline. The hospital still exists today and continues its daily operations as a general hospital and dental facility.

Disciplinary practices inside the prison

Disciplinary practices at the prison were much harsher in the 1800s. Initially, there were no bathing facilities and inmates were forced to wear the degrading stripped uniform, walk in lockstep, and spend the day in silence. Some officers grew fond of the leather paddle and tied unruly inmates to the floor and beat them for their offenses.

By 1900, many forms of the barbaric corporal punishment methods were abandoned, with the exception of the electric chair. Originally, the electric chair was seen as a more humane method of execution than the noose. A total of twenty-six men were executed in the chair before it was abolished at the prison in 1913. New state legislation eliminated the executions at Dannemora and required that all future ones take place at Sing Sing prison in New York City. Death by execution ended completely in New York state in 1965. Solitary confinement, however, still exists at the prison today.

Fires, riots, and rebellion

Since almost the beginning, the prison has been plagued by a series of fires and life-threatening rebellions. Several officers have been killed and injured as they fought to protect their friends, inmates, and innocent community members who live outside the walls. The 1929 riot is the most infamous altercation between inmates and guards in the prison history.

According to official documentation and a New York Times article, the largest riot in prison history occurred on July 22, 1929, when approximately 1,300 inmates charged the prison walls in a desperate escape attempt. After setting fire to lumber and buildings, the angry convicts soon took their aggression out on the guards. Three guards were shot and killed during the riot, while others were captured, stoned, and beaten. As the riot continued through the afternoon hours, prison officials called upon the help of state troopers and the 20th infantry. Many inmates surrendered after they saw the troopers arrive with a wide array of weaponry, including grenades, guns, and ammunition, while approximately one hundred inmates barricaded themselves in the tailor shop. Finally, when presented with a violent ultimatum from the warden, the inmates also surrendered before the guards needed the assistance of extra forces.

As the years continued, the number of violent and deadly incidents also grew. Throughout the decades, many guards have lost their lives during their service to the prison, as they tried to maintain the order behind the sometimes deadly walls.

Several fires have also devastated the prison and led to the "big house" era of reconstruction. The most recent major fire destroyed the dairy farm on the grounds in 1998. The damage was so extensive that the barn will not likely be replaced on the prison grounds because of the considerable cost to replace it.

The industry inside the confines

In the beginning, iron mining was the main operation of the prison, with three main mines scattered within the structure's walls. Inmates would dig deep into the rich mountain soil in search for iron.

1972 aerial photo of prison
Courtesy of a 1972 Prison report.
Aerial view of the prison.

By 1877, as the iron value depreciated and through political interference, iron mining soon became a forgotten memory at the prison. Still, the state wanted to provide employment for the convicts and soon created additional industries at the jail. Throughout the years, convicts have performed many jobs inside the gated community; from the daily maintenance and repairs, to making shoes and sewing uniforms to send to other state institutions.

The prison's affect in New York

Since its construction, the prison has had an immense impact on New York, particularly in the communities which surround Dannemora. For over a century, the facility has played an intricate role in the lives of many families and for the judicial system in New York state.

Did you know that Clinton Correctional Facility was the largest maximum security prison in New York?

Famous people have been incarcerated at Clinton Correctional in the past:

-Some infamous rappers, including Tupac Shakur and Ol' Dirty Bastard, spent time behind the high walls of Clinton Correctional Facility.
-Robert Chambers, also known as the "preppie killer," had once stalked the streets in the 80s preying on young couples. After his conviction, Chambers spent time at the prison.
-Son of Sam, the infamous forty-four caliber killer, was also transferred into the facility after his conviction for his killing spree.

Remnants of the old prison still exist today at the museum:

Unfortunately, the museum was closed and disabled a few weeks ago, but prior to its deconstruction, it offered current officers and administration a deep look into the rich history of the prison. Authorized personnel and visitors could wander through the single room that offers an extensive and detailed timeline, including numerous old photographs and two large, hand-crafted prison models—one of what the prison used to look like and one of how the facility looks today.

The museum also contained a number of old prison artifacts. Visitors could peer into the enclosed glass case and see everything from the original log book, a nail that was used for the wooden stockade, to 1912 shackles, and a dark cell board that was used to maintain the daily headcount.

Famous Recreational Yard
Photo courtesy of a facility press release.
This recreational yard is the only one of its kind in New York State.

Interesting little facts...

Did you know?

  • Clinton Correctional Facility has one of the most unique recreational yards for the inmates. Unlike the other prisons, the yard is divided into several "mini" areas so inmates can segregate into their familiar groups, instead of mingling out in the open with one another. In addition to the "private" yards, it also provides basketball courts. The recreational yard was designed in an effort to accommodate the inmates and reduce the chances of violence, and continues to be the only one with this setup in New York.
  • The Church of St. Dismas, the church of the good thief, was constructed inside the prison walls in 1941 and is the only one in New York that has been built and maintained by inmates. The inmates designed everything from the intricate stained glass to the sturdy, wooden pews. Some other materials were shipped to the prison to be used in the church, including the marble for the altar which came from Italy and Africa.
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