Games Prison Bureaucrats Play: The Story of the Olympic Prison

Games Prison Bureaucrats Play: The Story of the Olympic Prison

By Andy Hall

Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp.22-25

In 11 short months the small village of Lake Placid, nestled high in the Adirondack mountain range of upstate New York, will provide the setting for the 13th Winter Olympiad. President Carter will preside at the opening ceremonies to symbolize the Olympic tradition, and, no doubt, to enunciate the desire of the American people for world peace and freedom for all people.

The best athletes of some 40 nations will live together for three weeks of intense competition. The Olympic spirit of international cooperation and community, perhaps most tangibly represented by the Olympic Village, will captivate radio and television audiences around the world. Then the contests will end, the medals will be awarded, and the participants will head home. And finally, if all goes as planned, the Olympic Village will be quickly converted to the latest addition of what the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, minister at New York’s Riverside Church, recently described as the American Gulag. Olympic Village will become a federal prison!

For some the idea makes sense. For Olympics organizers, it is a free ride on the federal government. For area politicians, a federal prison may mean a few jobs for unemployed mountain people as prison guards. For prison bureaucrats, the Games provide a quick and easy means of further expansion. But as news of the Olympic Village-to-prison idea has spread, many others have been instantly appalled.

The prison conversion scheme was brought to life in early 1976 when Congressman Robert McEwen, representing the people of the Adirondack region – though perhaps

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more specifically the interests of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee (LPOOC) began going door-to-door among the federal agencies in Washington hoping to find one that would consider using the athletes’ housing complex planned for Lake Placid Games. It seems that Congress had appropriated construction monies for the complex and the other sports facilities on the condition that an appropriate afteruse be guaranteed upon the completion of competition.

McEwen and the LPOOC were beginning to become desperate in the Spring of 1976, since construction for a facility to house, feed, entertain and provide medical care for 1800 athletes and trainers in February 1980 needed to be funded and scheduled right away. Then McEwen heard ft Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Norman Carlson had Congressional authorization to build a prison somewhere in the Northeast. Carlson, as it happened, had a plan from a prison the Bureau had just built in Memphis, but he had located no site in the Northeast for the youthful offender prison he had convinced Congress he needed.

Carlson listened to McEwen’s eager description of International Olympic Committee requirements for an Olympic Village, including the security features deemed necessary in the aftermath of the tragic attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. He then opined as how it sounded just like one of his youth facilities.

For McEwen it was, “the answer to our prayers”. And though Norman Carlson had stated his firm philosophy in the June 1979 Congressional hearings, “that new institutions should be as close, as we can humanly get them to where the offenders are from, and where we can find staff and other resources,” on the other hand the Adirondack Enterprise quoted the opportunistic prison bureaucrat at a June 1, 1976, news conference at Lake Placid as saying, “As far as the location (of the proposed prison) goes, it’s great.” Lake Placid Mayor Robert Peacock voiced his approval that day as well. “It’s the most sensible idea anyone’s come up with yet,” he said.

Still, for months the prison afteruse plan floated quietly through various executive channels as an obscure budget item. Republicans McEwen and Carlson, and the minions of the Ford Administration developed a simple, effective strategy. Through the magic of bureaucratese the prison plan was artfully designated as a “secondary use”. The Olympic Village, as a facility to house contestants for only three weeks, became termed the “primary use”.

The word play would afford Director Carlson a handy and needed alibi when the conversion deal bobbed to the surface early in 1977 in President Jimmy Carter’s first budget. At that point Carlson claimed that, due to the unfortunate absence of any other federal need for the facility, the immediacy of the scheduled Winter Games, and the purely “secondary” nature of the prison afteruse, the Bureau of Prisons had no apparent choice but to concede the feasibility of using the building and, with great reluctance, take possession. Also, as the so-called “secondary” user, Carlson could also profess innocence and ignorance of the transmission of the budget request to the Hill for the needed $22 million appropriation. This was the perfect ploy to bypass a sometimes troublesome step for ‘the Bureau in the legislative process.

Representative Robert Kastenmeier’s House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of Justice, with responsibility for federal prison policy oversight, posed a threat to the Carlson-McEwen plan. Carlson knew from bitter experience that the oversight panel would not take kindly to the idea of locating a 500-bed prison in the remote hills of upstate New York.

In 1975 he had been called down by then-Subcommittee member Herman Badillo (D-NY) for locating a 500-bed prison in Otisville, New York, some 120 miles from new York City. Badillo had angrily criticized the Otisville location as far too distant for prisoner relatives and friends, and without needed local resources and a racially representative workforce pool.

The Director had been forced to promise the Subcommittee “. . . that we will consult with you in the future.” Thus, the Kastenmeier panel would undoubtedly be a tough row to hoe for a proposed prison not 120, but 350 miles from New York City or Boston, the urban centers from which the facility would draw the bulk of its young population over the years.

In early 1977, just before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, the $22 million appropriation to locate a 500-bed youthful offender prison in the Adirondacks was cloaked as a “secondary use”, inserted in the budget as a supplemental appropriation for the fiscal year already half over, and slipped past the important policy oversight panel.

For there on it was a laugher for the fellows at the Bureau: Kastenmeier and fellow subcommittee members read about the Lake Placid prison in the papers – a fait accompli. Kastenmeier himself fumed but remained silent. Father Robert Drinan, also on the oversight panel, was infuriated. But he would be the only panel member to publicly condemn the supplemental budget secondary use maneuver. Father Drinan drew up a lengthy statement protesting the Olympic Village afteruse decision as made without benefit of full discussion or careful planning. He called the process “irresponsible.”

But with the Judiciary Subcommittee neatly sidestepped, the Appropriations Committee passed on the plan, disregarding Drinan and the criticisms of two of its own members, Yvonne Burke of California and Joe Early of Massachusetts. Though Burke and Early warned the disadvantages of the plan far outweighed the immediate, convenient short-term benefits, they were paid no heed. Construction was scheduled to begin the next month, in

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April 1977.

The remarkable history of the federal prison system since Richard Nixon’s ascension to the White House in 1969 is appreciated by few. It is, or has been, the least visible of the virtually invisible prison empires across the country. It is the largest of all incarcerating agencies in the U.S., operating 51 prisons and holding approximately 27,000 people at an annual cost (this year) of over $330 million.

The Bureau has led the national prison boom throughout the decade, adding 24 new prisons more than 9500 bedspaces – since the inception of the Nixon/Mitchell/Carlson Long Range Master Plan for prison expansion in 1969. That Master Plan generated federal prison construction over the last ten years equalling that of the previous 40 years of the Bureau’s history, with the agency pushing huge requests for bricks and mortar through the Congress in the early 70s with no real opposition.

Prison crowding has served as the most consistent rationale for the Bureau’s annual expansion requests, as it has for nearly every other prison system in the nation. Conservative politicians have voted for expansion, convinced that judges would fail to imprison dangerous criminals if prison capacity became insufficient. Liberals have supported prison growth, seeing no other way to alleviate a lack of individual cell space and the attendant health, privacy, and security problems.

Yet, no jurisdiction in the nation has been successful in resolving prison crowding through construction projects, as prisoner numbers have quickly swelled to fill added capacity, leaving prisons crowded once again. At this point, approximately 175,000 jails and prisons beds are planned across the country at a total cost in excess of $5 billion. The Southern states, traditionally the most dependent on imprisonment, account for 40 percent of known expansion plans.

The size of the 18-30 component of the population (particularly the minority segment of that group), worsening unemployment, and generally increased use of incarceration, have combined to inflate American jail and prison populations by 50 percent in the last five years, to nearly 600,000. This phenomenon has outstripped the most ambitious expansion programs. All the new American prisons have left the U.S. with the highest rate of incarceration among Western nations, with the sole exception being South Africa. (Georgia, now apparently the nation’s most enthusiastic user of prisons, even significantly exceeds South Africa, with one of every 234 Georgians behind bars at last count. One of every 47 Black males in Georgia is in jail or prison.)

The proportion of minorities present in the federal prisons has grown steadily since 1969, due to the quite unsurprising fact that sentences given Black and brown offenders are much more severe than those given Whites, even for first offenders. In fact, simple racial parity in sentencing would empty six 500-bed prisons in the federal system.

In January of 1975, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee decided to fund an office in Washington, D.C., the National Moratorium on Prison Construction (NMPC). The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which had earlier called for a halt to additional prisons, joined in support. The Moratorium office was founded in the belief that prisons did little but exacerbate the problem of crime and that crime victims and the public in general had nothing to gain from the imprisonment of increasing numbers of persons. Prison construction requests were seen as the most strategic occasions in the crime policy process at which to advocate drastic curtailment of the practice of caging. The Moratorium project immediately began to investigate Norman Carlson’s agency.

If only beginning to fathom how the Lake Placid plan had come to pass, prison moratorium advocates in Washington and New York immediately recognized the significance of the government’s plan. It was a clear violation of Carlson’s stated policy on the location of Bureau institutions. The 500-bed youth prison could be guaranteed a Black and Puerto Rican population of 65 percent or higher, practically cut off from families and friends.

The campaign to “Stop The Olympic Prison” got underway in the Fall of 1977 as the National Moratorium office and its affiliate organization in New York (NYMPC) began working intensively. In New York, the leadership of the New York State Council of Churches moved to support a STOP organizing staff. From Washington to New York, STOP began the process of rallying broad support in order to bring the Olympic Prison plan to national atten

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Little by little, the David versus Goliath effort began having an effect. Due to the persistence of STOP and NMPC organizers, and the usual media interest in the staging of an Olympic competition, the plan involving the Olympic Village quickly gained stature as a significant controversy.

Criticism also spread quickly through the religious community, generating scores of resolutions opposing the prison from churches and regional denominational organizations. Many athletes and former Olympians were shocked by the conversion plan.

Significantly, athletes, religious figures, and prison critics from several of the countries sending participants to the Winter Games have also joined the STOP protest. Italian, French, Dutch, East German, Swedish, British, and Canadian opposition has been registered with the Carter Administration, Congress, the Bureau of Prisons, and Olympic officials.

As principal STOP organizer Brian Willson points out, the Olympic Prison controversy presents a clear international issue. “Other nations are wondering about our integrity and our dedication to the spirit of the Olympic Games in light of the U.S. decision to let this building become a prison,” Willson says. Indeed, the Carter Administration is very much aware of the contrast between U.S. afteruse plans and those made by the Soviet Union for the Moscow Summer Olympics later next year. The Moscow Olympic Village will be used to provide needed housing for Russian citizens after those Games.

The Soviet plans are doubly ironic for Americans approaching next February’s Games; First, it was known that a critical shortage of low-cost housing existed in Lake Placid. Yet, that need was rejected in afteruse deliberations, resulting in the appropriation of additional federal and local funds to build housing for senior citizens on another site in the area. Second, there have been many political rumblings about the idea of a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Games due to the treatment of Ginsberg and other dissidents. One must wonder how Americans would react if the Russians went so far as to plan to convert their Olympic Village into a prison.

As the Winter Games draw closer, “Stop The Olympic Prison” organizers and supporters have considerable hope that the prison conversion plan will be averted. Two important factors may interact to cause Bureau of Prisons Director Carlson to relinquish the prize he grabbed three years ago. Illustrating the purely speculative venture of projective prison populations, the number of people held by the Bureau has fallen sharply over the past 18 months. At the same time, the desire of the U.S. Olympic Committee and associated amateur athletic organizations to establish a permanent athletic training center at Lake Placid has become clear.

The U.S.O.C.’s training site selection committee notified New York Governor Carey that its conditional selection of the full committee is expected soon. Although U.S.O.C. officials have not openly sought use of the Olympic Village as a part of the complex they envision, an athletic afteruse appears more and more attractive to others involved due to the heightening controversy over the ill-conceived prison plan.

Last December, Jim Anderson, Director of the quasi-governmental New York State Task Force on Sports and Physical Fitness, detailed the needs of such a permanent training center to STOP organizers. Adequate housing, medical, dining, and administration facilities would be required. Also, space would be needed for a planned sports physiology diagnostic center, a facility to improve exercise, dietary, and medical practices for athletes in training. Anderson said he could see no reason why the Olympic Village could not be easily adapted for such purposes instead of the planned prison use. Another large complex would need to be constructed in the area if the Village could not be used. A distinctly unwelcome prospect for those already outraged at the extensive environmental damage done in the construction of the Village facility.

Letters to President Carter and Kastenmeier have come in great volume from all over the country. The Wisconsin Congressman has reportedly received more personal letters on this issue than on any other during his II terms in Washington. Still, protest leaders believe Kastenmeier is waiting to see if anti-prison sentiment is sustained in the early months of the session before deciding whether to take a STOP amendment to his colleagues. And even if the prison is stopped, the larger issue of the need for thorough inspection of sentencing practices and the lack of community alternatives to imprisonment throughout the federal criminal justice system must come to the fore if the STOP campaign is to achieve its real goal.

For prison moratorium forces the Olympic Prison plan has presented an unexpected opportunity to reach more people in their effort against more prisons in the U.S. The STOP protest has already resulted in greatly increased visibility and support for the moratorium idea. Hundreds of letters to the Congress against massive prison building proposals and attempts to draft a harsh, new federal criminal code (last year known as Senate Bill 1437) have brought at least temporary success on the federal level. While the Lake Placid conversion plan represents only one in a long line of new federal prisons, it now serves NMPC and others as a perfect case in point of haphazard and cost-defective practices on the part of a federal bureaucracy just now receiving the close scrutiny they feel it has long deserved.

The Olympic Prison has brought the spotlight to a critical national question: Should scarce public resources continue to be invested to build further to America’s jail and prison capacity, or should the public and policymakers use the information and alternatives at hand to build paths away from the prisons? In just a few months, the world can learn whether “the land of the free” will open another lonely outpost in the American Gulag. Or will Jimmy Carter’s words at the opening ceremonies about the Olympic tradition ring true? The STOP folks hope you won’t sit and wait to find out.

Andy Hall was a coordinator in Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s National Moratorium on Prison Construction, for the Washington, D.C., office for two-and-a-half years before moving to Atlanta recently to work for NMP in the Southern states.