Still on the job

RAY BROOK – Jay Swartz has been a vocational instructor in the state prison system for 29 years. He says he’s seen the good that comes from teaching inmates skills like basic carpentry.

“I think for these guys, there’s a real sense of pride they get from taking something, especially when they don’t have skills, and realizing they can do something and accomplish something,” said Swartz, who lives in Paul Smiths.

Over the years, the work done by state prison inmates in vocational programs has also benefitted the North Country communities where they’re locked up. Inmates have made signs for local roads. They’ve maintained hiking trails in the Adirondack backcountry and parks in local villages and towns. They’ve repaired lawnmowers and chainsaws for local highway departments. They’ve helped build the Ice Palace for the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. And Swartz and his crew in the Vocational Carpentry program at Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook just recently finished building several Adirondack chairs for the Lake Placid Public Library.

These days, since the state started downsizing its prison system to meet an overall decline in the inmate population, this kind of work isn’t happening as often as it used to. Over the last seven years, roughly a dozen prisons have been closed in New York, including Camp Gabriels in 2009 and Lyon Mountain in 2011. Four more, including Chateaugay in Franklin County and Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, are currently on the chopping block.

At the same time, the number of vocational programs at some prisons has also been curtailed. There are currently three vocational programs for inmates at Adirondack: carpentry, building maintenance and custodial maintenance. The carpentry shop at Adirondack was shut down for several years until it reopened a few years ago.

That’s a far cry from the number of programs Adirondack had before the state budget ax fell. Tom Seymour, who was a vocational instructor at Adirondack for 27 years until retiring in 2006, said there used to be at least 10 vocational programs at the medium-security prison, including horticulture, small engine repair, commercial arts, business machines and radio and television repair.

Inmate crews were often working out in the community in those days, he said.

“When I was first there, there was crews that went all over, like 15 crews at one time,” said Seymour, who lives in Rainbow Lake. “They did a myriad of things. There was some (state Department of Environmental Conservation) crews. There was a couple construction crews.”

Seymour said the inmates he worked with helped build the current lodges at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center, the gazebo in Saranac Lake’s Berkeley Green, furniture at the Paul Smith’s College VIC and the log buildings at what is now the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, to name a few projects.

“We used to do about 50 to 100 picnic tables a year,” Seymour said.

With fewer inmates available to do these kinds of projects, the agencies, local governments and organizations that used to rely on them for help have had to look elsewhere.

“I think it definitely has hurt,” Seymour said. “I don’t know the financial end of it, how much it has cost, but there was a lot of good work that was done by the prisons.”

“I think it was an incredible asset, especially if you think about trail maintenance in wilderness areas where you’re not allowed to bring in motorized equipment or vehicles,” said Swartz. “I’ve worked with, at Gabriels, 25 guys with pruners going out and removing stuff. I think that work has been really valuable, and it’s missed.”

The work done in North Country communities by inmate crews hasn’t completely disappeared, of course. Take the Ice Palace, for example.

Inmates from Camp Gabriels used to help build the palace every year. When the prison closed, crews from the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility took over and have helped out each winter. This year, two crews of 15 to 20 inmates were on hand for about two weeks, according to Dean Baker, head of the Carnival Ice Palace building crew. Building the palace without them would be much more difficult and time consuming, he said.

“We’re lucky enough that they bring up strong young men and they can do sawing for us, they can carry buckets of slush, they can slush (between the blocks of ice) for us,” Baker said. “They do a lot of jobs that a lot of us older people would take longer to do, so we’re very happy to have them.”

Adirondack is keeping its vocational programs going by doing things differently.

Joe Payton, the prison’s deputy superintendent for programs, said budget restrictions have made it harder to get materials, like lumber, for the carpentry program. To keep the shop operating, he said, prison officials have had to ask for materials to be donated.

“The supplies are hard to come by because we’re limited by the amount we can spend,” he said. “Thinking outside the box a little bit, we reached out to other state agencies and asked them if they had projects that needed to be done. We made picnic tables and portable outhouses for the state parks. (DEC) supplied the lumber. We supplied the labor.

“Then we reached out a little further to nonprofit agencies like the Lake Placid library,” Payton added. “They wanted some chairs built. They purchased the lumber and brought it in, and we made the chairs for them. We’re going to make some outside clubhouses and playhouses for (Tendercare Tot Center). This is working out well for us where we’re not spending additional monies to teach (the inmates) how to do something.”

Inmate reintegration is the focus of the prison’s vocational programs, Payton said, “so when they go home, they’ll have a successful release and be able to get a job on the outside.

“They’re learning a trade,” he said. “They have some basic carpentry skills, so if there’s a laborer’s position or to try to get into a laborer’s union, something like that, they would be qualified for that.”

Swartz said some of the inmates who work in his shop may have some carpentry or building experience while others have never picked up a hammer before.

“You start them off small with some small projects, then work them up and give them more responsibility,” he said. “I try to team an experienced guy with a guy that does not have experience.”

Damian Jacas is one of the latter.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said the 43-year-old from Manhattan who’s currently serving four to 13 years on corruption, grand larceny and forgery charges. “I was involved in finance and lived in a high-rise building, and I always had people do things for me. I didn’t even know how to hammer a nail into a piece of wood.

“Mr. Swartz has taken his time out and showed me how to build things and use a lot of the machines. We did these Adirondack chairs. We’ve done nightstands, park benches and bookshelves. I’ve come a real long way, and now I actually get my hands dirty. There’s a silver lining in jail, actually, to come here and learn this.”

Terence Allen, 28, of Manhattan, said he was also new to carpentry before coming to the prison. He’s near the end of a two-year prison sentence for drug possession.

“I get to come here four days out of the week,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. It’s something to keep our minds steady. I like painting, so that’s something I look forward to when I come down here. It’s helping me to get my skills together so when I get back I can probably do some house work and put some things together.”

Swartz said he doesn’t tell his students that they’ll come out of his program as carpenters, but he thinks it can put them on the right track.

“They know the safety of tools, and there’s a strong academic part of the program,” Swartz said. “They can go and help somebody who’s doing a job, or they themselves can build a deck or something like that. It’s a personal thing that they can take back with them.”

These crews are looking for more work, too. While Adirondack’s medium-security inmates aren’t allowed to get out into the community like the minimum-security prisoners at Camp Gabriels did, “we can do small projects and make things like sheds, benches, chairs and picnic tables,” Payton said.

“We’re really looking for someone willing to buy materials, then we’ll make whatever they want,” Payton said. “It’s nice for some of the places that may not have a lot of funds available, the churches and things, if they need things built. These guys have a lot of talent down here. I’d like to keep them working.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.