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History of Clinton Prison

For more than 175 years, Dannemora Prison, now known as Clinton Correctional Facility, has stood over the village of Dannemora, serving as both a source of employment for locals and a place to house some of the country's most infamous criminals. The prison was initially built to hold inmates who were utilized as laborers for mining operations. The history of "Clinton Prison," as it is known in historical documents, dates back to before the prison's construction, with property owners and local newspapers lobbying the state to choose Clinton County for the new prison. In 1845, New York State granted 200 acres of land and $47,500 to build a prison and purchase an iron mine west of Dannemora ($30,000 for the prison, $17,500 for the mine). Prisoners from all over the state were brought to Plattsburgh and made to walk the 17 miles to Dannemora in all weather conditions.

 

The new facility was considered a frontier prison and was later referred to as "Little Siberia" due to its harsh winters and remote location. While engineer Ransom Cook's efforts to create a profitable iron operation led to the growth of the village of Dannemora, including 20 new buildings such as hotels and stores, the iron operation was ultimately a failure. By 1861, officials realized that the mine could not be profitable, and by 1877 the enterprise was abandoned. However, Clinton Prison and the inmates remained. Prisoners were used for other trades, and in 1894, with the adoption of the State Use System, prison laborers created goods, such as textiles, for exclusive sale to state and local governments, giving Clinton Prison a new lease on life.

 

In addition to providing a source of labor, the facility served another purpose. The cool air of the Adirondacks was thought to be effective in treating tuberculosis, and in 1901, Clinton Prison established a hospital ward for tuberculosis patients, with doctors such as J.B. Ransom conducting research into the disease. However, health and sanitary conditions in prisons during the 19th and 20th centuries were poor, and medical officials sought to improve circumstances, often putting them in conflict with prison officials focused on discipline.

 

In 1941, Dannemora State Hospital was established and became the location to which all tuberculous-infected prisoners in New York State were sent for treatment. Clinton Prison was home to one of New York State's death rows and an electric chair, with 26 prisoners being executed between 1892 and 1913.

 

The Church of St. Dismas, Good Thief, was built within the walls of Clinton Prison between 1939 and 1941. It was constructed by prison labor using fieldstones salvaged from 19th-century stone structures already on the site, including the prison's first cell block. The Church still stands to this day and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The wardens of Clinton Prison, like other officials in New York State, were appointed based on political patronage. However, this changed after the implementation of civil service reforms, which required hiring based on qualifications determined by exams. For the guards, their work was and remains difficult. In 1929, a riot at the prison caused $200,000 in damage (worth approximately $3.5 million today). The riot sparked reforms that brought heat to the prison, and schools were set up to educate a primarily illiterate population, with most of the structures within the prison walls being updated to "modern" standards.

For more historical information on Dannemora or the prison please stop by at the Dannemora Village Museum at the Community Center on Emmons Street.

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