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A Brief History of Dannemora Prison

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

By Nick Southwick | Photos Supplied by the Clinton County Historical Museum

For over 175 years the walls of Dannemora Prison, now Clinton Correctional Facility, have towered over the village of Dannemora, New York offering both a source of employment for locals and a place to hold some of the country’s most notorious criminals. The prison was originally built to hold inmates who were used as free laborers for local businesses.

Today the prison houses over 1,100 inmates in maximum security, employs more than 1,000 people and serves as an anchor of employment stability in the area. As I learned while researching the prison for this article, the history of Clinton is more detailed than one might think.

The evolution of “Clinton Prison,” as it is called in historical documents, began before the construction of the prison itself. Property owners as well as local newspapers, lobbied the state to select Clinton County for a new prison. In 1845 New York State awarded 200 acres of land and $47,500 to build a prison and acquire an iron mine west of Dannemora. ($30,000 for the prison $17,500 for the mine).

Prisoners from all over the state were transported to Plattsburgh and then made to walk the 17 miles to Dannemora in all kinds of weather. The new facility was considered a frontier prison. In later years, it was often referred to as “Little Siberia” for its harsh winters and isolated geography.

While engineer Ransom Cook’s efforts to create a profitable iron operation led to the growth of the village of Dannemora — 20 new buildings including 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. While the iron mine was unsuccessful, Clinton Prison and the inmates remained. Prisoners were used instead in other trades. and in 1894, with the adoption of the State Use System where prison laborers created goods, such as textiles, for exclusive sale to state and local governments, Clinton prison had a new lease on life.

More than a source of labor, the facility served an additional purpose. The cool air of the Adirondacks was believed to be effective in treating tuberculosis. In 1901 Clinton Prison established a hospital ward for tuberculosis patients and doctors such as J.B. Ransom conducted research into the disease.

Health and sanitary conditions in prisons in the 19th and 20th century were poor and medical officials sought to improve circumstances. That often put then in conflict with prison officials who were focused on discipline.

In 1941 Dannemora State Hospital was formed and became the place where 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. Twenty-six prisoners were executed beginning in 1892 until the chair was removed in 1913.

The Church of St. Dismas, Good Thief was built within the walls of Clinton Prison between 1939 – 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 is still standing 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. That 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 there was a riot at the prison that caused $200,000 in damage. Adjusted for inflation, $200,000 would be worth approximately $3.5 million today. The riot sparked reforms that brought heat to the prison. Schools were set up to educate a primarily illiterate population and most of the structures within the prison walls were updated to “modern” standards.

In the 1930s, when New York State limited the number of hours corrections officers could work, there was a surge in hiring at Clinton Prison. When tasked with recruiting over 500 additional officers, Clinton formed the first guard school for new recruits. They had plenty of applicants as they were offering a salary of $1,800 a year at a time when the median salary in the United States was $1,160. If an applicant was between 21 and 30 years old, over 5 foot 9 inches tall and 155 pounds, with no felonies, they could apply if they passed a civil service exam.

I sat down recently with Colleen and Larry Seney of the Dannemora Museum to learn more about the prison’s history. The Museum was established by the late Pete Light and is now maintained by the Seney’s as volunteers. They are continuously at work scanning and cataloguing items brought in by locals with ties to Dannemora or the Prison in order to form a coherent history of both.

Among the documents on file in the museum are newspaper clippings detailing the economic impact of the Prison on Dannemora. One such article from the Press-Republican in July 1995 quotes residents referring to the Prison as “a major hub for our community” that, if it were to close “we wouldn’t be here.” Many business owners began their careers working in the Prison before embarking on their own entrepreneurial ventures.

The stability of a corrections officer’s paycheck was and remains a key ingredient in the economic growth of Dannemora. It allowed Prison employees to buy homes in the village and raise families. Beyond those benefits, much of the village’s infrastructure owes its existence to the Prison. Prior to the installation of pumps and reservoirs, water was delivered to the prison and sold to residents via an ox cart with barrels. Because of the Prison, Dannemora became a self-sufficient town with its own dairy, barbershop and hospital.

Dannemora Prison evolved from a frontier outpost to the largest maximum security facility in the State and the third oldest. Among institutions that have lasted for over 100 years in the North Country, the prison looms large over all others.

“Clinton Correctional Facility has been a North Country icon since the 1800s and has employed thousands of people over the years. In the 21st century, the facility continues to be an important economic driver in the North Country community, continuing to bring good-paying government jobs to our region while also attracting businesses like Maggy’s Pharmacy, Stewart’s and M’Akin Things Handmade to Dannemora.” Assemblyman Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake)

Dannemora Prison Today Physical Size: There are 65 acres inside the wall of the Main and the fencing of the Annex. The Main has approximately 37.5 acres within the wall and the Annex has approximately 27.5 acres within the fencing. The outlying state property is 5,109 acres. That combined with the acres of the Main/Annex gives a grand total of 5,174 acres.

Inmate population: As of January 17, 2023, there were 1,118 incarcerated individuals in the Clinton Correctional Facility. The facility’s capacity is currently 1,969.

Staff size: Currently 1,020 people are employed at the Clinton Correctional Facility.

Job categories include:

Correction Officers Parole Officers Teachers & Vocational Instructors Physical & Mental Health Professionals Counseling Professionals Industry Supervisors Clerical Maintenance Food Service

Clinton Correctional Facility 1156 State Route 374 Dannemora, NY 12929

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