DEATH DOESN'T BRING TOWN TO LIFE

RICK KARLIN Staff writer DANNEMORA When Ursula Kaufman was a little girl, it was easy to tell when the executions took place at the prison in her hometown.
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, September 3, 1995

Lights would flicker as electricity was diverted from the community's power grid to the electric chair, said Kaufman, who is 90 and living in the house where she was raised, two blocks from the Clinton Correctional Facility, known to most as Dannemora.


The last man electrocuted there, Frederick Poulin, died in 1913, but Dannemora has maintained its reputation as one of New York's toughest prison towns.


In light of that distinction, Dannemora residents were notably nonchalant about playing host to the nation's newest death row.


Gov. George Pataki announced last week Dannemora, in Clinton County, will house the state's male convicts awaiting execution under New York's newly restored death penalty law, which took effect Friday. Female inmates will await their fate in the Bedford Hills prison in Westchester County. For the time being, Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, Dutchess County, will be home to the death chamber until a permanent site for administering lethal injections is built at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, Sullivan County.


Because the law is new, it probably will be years before anyone is actually executed. But in the 2,956-bed Dannemora prison, there already are three cells set to accept the condemned. And the townspeople are just as ready.


``I think it's something we just take in stride,'' Kaufman said of the announcement that Dannemora will house death row prisoners. ``That's our livelihood in this town, so we just take whatever comes.''


Once known as Little Siberia, thanks to its frigid winters and isolated location near the Canadian border about a half-hour from Plattsburgh, Dannemora is a classic, gothic prison town.


While many small communities have a park in their center, Dannemora has a 50-foot-high wall that rises straight from the curb along Cook Street, the main thoroughfare.


The original prison, built in 1845, used to be surrounded by wooden walls. Now they are concrete, with glass-viewing turrets along the top. The massive barrier is redolent of a medieval fortress or a sinister amusement park attraction.


Across the street, it looks like any minor commercial center, with its Mobil station, Frenette's Mini-Mart, and Outfitters Plus hunting store. There are some foreboding symbols though, such as the sign in the window of Ting's Motel that warns: ``Absolutely No Loitering in Motel Lobby.''


Thursday afternoon, hours before the death penalty law would take effect at midnight, few prison workers or residents were in a mood to talk. Requests to interview corrections officials and to tour the facility were denied. As a reporter and photographer approached the main entrance, a guard poked his head out of one of the turrets atop the wall and shouted: ``Have you got permission to be on state property?''


Across the street, an old man ducked under the awning of an out-of-business restaurant to avoid the drizzling rain and to watch a flock of pigeons circling the penitentiary. When asked if the return of death row will alter the character of Dannemora, the man replied, ``This town will never change.''


Like others interviewed, he was fearful of having his name in the newspaper, as if he would offend some unseen powers or social arbiters.


``It's a tough town,'' the man said. ``They either like you or they don't like you here.''


Attitudes about capital punishment ranged from lustful enthusiasm to measured acceptance.


``I'm all for it. I'll even help them pull the switch,'' offered a man unloading beverages at the Stewart's store across Cook Street.


``They should all be dead,'' remarked a woman as she emerged from a late-model Chevrolet with a license-plate holder declaring she would ``rather be driving a golf ball.'' She added she was working temporarily at the prison taking air-quality samples.


The corrections industry is clearly the major economic force in this North Country region where farmers struggle to survive and the timber industry is subject to sharp ups and downs.


Clinton Correctional Facility's role as a source of steady work is apparent from the number and quality of vehicles crammed into parking lots around the prison. Shiny new pickups, Camaros and Bonnevilles overflow into the lot of a closed Knights of Columbus hall just west of the prison wall.


A couple of blocks away, in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, noontime church bells could be heard as retired guard Kenneth Barcomb, 63, worked in his yard.


Like many of the largely Irish or French-Canadian residents of the region, Barcomb said he was a practicing Catholic and had mixed feelings about the death penalty. ``It's a balance between the individual's rights and the rights of society to be protected,'' he said.


Such thoughts rarely came up when he worked inside the prison, though. ``Probably the least philosophical people in the world are the prison guards,'' said Barcomb. ``It's a paycheck.''


Curt Bowman works in the prison, and he supports the capital punishment for prosaic reasons. ``Something has got to stop people like Lemuel Smith, who goes around killing correctional officers,'' said Bowman. Smith was the rapist, robber and kidnapper who in 1981 killed rookie prison guard Donna Payant in the chaplain's office of Green Haven prison.


Smith escaped execution thanks to a 1984 state Court of Appeals ruling that effectively threw out New York's death penalty until it was restored this year by the Legislature and signed by Pataki.


Bowman heads the local office of Council 82 of the American Federation of state, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents prison guards. During an interview in the union office, located above a decrepit tavern on Cook Street, the 41-year-old guard said things have not changed much inside the prison since workers heard death row was coming.


The condemned men will be locked in Unit 14, where the most violent and unruly of inmates are sent, said Bowman. Unit 14 is home to the toughest inmates in one of state's toughest of prisons.


``We get the ones nobody else wants,'' Bowman said, gesturing out the window to the blank prison wall that dominates the view from his office. ``It's always been that way.''