No One Is Watching: Jail in Upstate New York

Montgomery County

Amsterdam, New York, is a small city in the northeastern corner of Montgomery County, a rural 410 square miles in the Mohawk Valley with a population of around 49,600 people. To the north of the county are the Adirondack Mountains. To the south, the dairy farms of rural Schoharie County. Vacant textile mills, some of them five or six stories high, loom over and ring Amsterdam’s city center, which was, for the most part, bulldozed in the early 1970s as part of an urban renewal scheme that left Amsterdam with a downtown mall that now sits mostly unoccupied. With around 18,000 residents, the city is the most populated part of the county. It is a quiet place.

Like many of the deindustrialized rural counties of upstate New York, the population of Montgomery County has been decreasing for decades. It is a place that many of New York State’s 16 million residents do not know particularly well; an area that rarely makes the national news.

Iob Montgomery River Full

Amsterdam and surrounding Montgomery County stand in stark contrast to the state’s biggest cities—and not only in the relative silence of media attention. The county also had the highest jail incarceration rate in New York State for 17 of the 20 years between 1996 and 2015. In 2015, there were 42 people in jail for every 10,000 people in the county between the ages of 15 and 64. This was more than double the rate for New York City, at 17 per 10,000 that same year.

The incarceration trend in America’s most populous city is a near mirror image of small cities like Amsterdam. Since 1991, the incarceration rate in New York City’s five boroughs dropped 60 percent, while the incarceration rate for rural upstate New York increased 66 percent. Montgomery County is now just one of the more extreme examples of the new geography of incarceration in New York. And, in a story familiar to many upstate counties, Montgomery built a new and larger jail in the 1990s. “We talked to the National Institute of Corrections [before building a new jail],” Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato explained. “They said, ‘If you build it they will come.’ And that’s what happened. The judges knew there was room, so they threw them in jail.”

There are many ways to get sent to the Montgomery County Jail. You could be arrested by a deputy from the county sheriff’s department, an officer of the City of Amsterdam Police Department, or the state troopers. You could end up in jail because you were detained while awaiting trial, or you could be sentenced to incarceration there by the county court or one of the various village and town courts within the county. But the majority of the people who are incarcerated in Montgomery County pass through the Amsterdam City Court system. And if you found yourself in Amsterdam City Court anytime between 1996 and 2015, you likely stood in front of the court’s only full-time judge, an elected Democrat, Howard Aison. “Maybe I had something to do with that,” Aison told me last year, referring to the high jail incarceration rates in the county. “I sent a lot of people to jail, and I sent them because I believed they deserved to go to jail.”

I visited the retired judge at his home on the south shore of the Mohawk River. We sat across from each other at his desk, the framed front page of the November 5, 2008, edition of the New York Times behind him. The headline: “OBAMA: RACIAL BARRIER FALLS IN DECISIVE VICTORY.” In the course of sending so many people to the county jail, Judge Aison also extracted significant amounts of revenue for the city from the people before him. “I made a lot of money for the city,” he told me. “And how did I make that money? Fines.” During his time as city judge, Aison had a policy of imposing maximum fines in every case. And when people didn’t pay? “I always chased people down,” he said. “A lot of people went to jail for not paying fines.” 

Iob Montgomery Judge Visit

By meticulously adding up the fines collected while he was in court, carefully excluding any collections made while he was on vacation, then subtracting the costs of running the court between January 1, 2009 and March 30, 2014, Judge Aison determined that he had collected higher combined fines and fees through the court system during his tenure than had any other upstate city—and more efficiently, at that. Judge Aison calculated the total revenue minus operating expenses for the Amsterdam City Court to be $1,451,596 for this period, compared to $105,821 for the City of Plattsburgh (population 19,780), and a “loss” of $1,058,853 for nearby Gloversville (population 14,940). During his unsuccessful run for district attorney in 2016, Judge Aison made this legacy part of his platform. Aison published these figures in a campaign flyer as a way to argue that he had been a conscientious and cost-effective public servant. When I asked the retired judge if he thought that taking in revenue like that had been beneficial, he replied, “It’s a good thing. It went to the City of Amsterdam. It’s expensive to have a police department.”

Judge Aison’s record of consistently imposing the maximum fines and fees represents a perverse kind of parity—the imposition of equal fines in the name of fairness. He told me, “To keep everybody equal, I always imposed the max.” When I asked him whether he was more vigilant about collecting fines than judges in other cities, he pointed at the campaign materials detailing the revenue of the City Court of Amsterdam. “There’s the answer right there.”

Iob Montgomery Main Street Hero

The judge’s practices did not escape the attention of others entrusted to carry out justice. “I called him the Time Machine,” Sheriff Michael Amato said. “If you went to his court, most of the time, you went to jail. The judge [they have] now likes to get people out of jail. Howard Aison liked to put people in jail. There are fewer people in jail now that Aison is retired.”

Michael Amato has been the sheriff of Montgomery County for over 20 years, and has worked in law enforcement for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office since 1979. The sheriff is a tall man in his early sixties, with a full head of hair and a hint of Brooklyn in his voice. He moved to Montgomery County as a child when his Italian-American family relocated from New York City for a better life. He lets me know that the steady stream of people landing in his jail via the City of Amsterdam’s court didn’t just wind up there just because of Judge Aison, and that most arrests in the county are made by the Amsterdam City Police. “The population down there [in Amsterdam] is from out of the area, and they bring a different culture,” he said.

According to many of the people I spoke with, Amsterdam is a city where Latino people are routinely harassed by the police. One lifelong Puerto Rican resident of Amsterdam was blunt in his assessment of the courts and the police. “The whole point of the thing is to make it miserable for Latino people to live here,” he told me. “A lot of the crime I see is petty stuff turning into big stuff. People get a ticket, they can’t pay, and then they go to jail because they can’t pay or because they don’t appear in court, and now they’re felons and lose their jobs.”

During the summer of 2014, the City Council of the City of Amsterdam voted four-to-one to outlaw playing basketball “on or near city streets,” citing traffic safety concerns. One man I spoke with in the East End, a historically Latino neighborhood, saw this ordinance as part of a broader pattern of the criminalization of youth—and, in particular, Latino youth—concomitant with the defunding of other social infrastructure. “The YMCA is gone now,” he said, “So the kids play basketball on the streets. Then they made basketball on the streets illegal, and I would actually see police in this neighborhood out ticketing people for basketball.”

A Latina woman I spoke to in the East End explained how the mostly-vacant mall and highways that cut through the small city reflect the racism behind the criminalization that structures the city. “Urban renewal was about cutting the Hispanic growth and cutting off the Hispanic neighborhood from the rest of the city,” she said. “They say that Hispanics came here for welfare, but they don’t ever talk about the recruitment of Hispanics by the textile industry.” 

Iob Montgomery Street Full

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Amsterdam was an industrial center. Immigrants from across Southern and Eastern Europe moved to the city to work in the booming textile and carpet mills. There were nearly 35,000 people living in the city in 1930. But after World War II, things changed. Textile and carpet mills began moving capital and machinery out of the city in order to take advantage of cheaper labor in the Jim Crow South. As industry left, New York State declared Amsterdam a distressed area, enabling textile manufacturers to move to the Mohawk Valley from downstate in order to take advantage of no-bid contracts. The new companies brought lower-paid Puerto Rican workers with them and continued to recruit, driving the creation of a two-tiered workforce.

This legacy is reflected in the contemporary demographics of Amsterdam. Roughly 68 percent of the city’s population is non-Latino white and 26 percent is Latino. The median household income of the county is $33,900, compared to a statewide median of $60,850, and 28 percent of people living in Amsterdam are living in poverty. Surrounding Montgomery County has a poverty rate of 20.6 percent; a rate that is already among the highest in the state and which has been on the rise in recent years. Comparatively, 42.3 percent of Latino people in Montgomery County are living in poverty—a majority of whom live in Amsterdam under the jurisdiction of the Amsterdam City Court. It’s hard to tell exactly how many Latino people are in Montgomery County’s jail, however, as most Latino people appear to have been reported in jail data as white.

Despite the multi-generational history of Latino families in Montgomery County, the perception of Latino people as outsiders was recurrent in my conversations with older white people in Amsterdam. Many told me that Latino people were in the area only to collect welfare. I was informed by local white people more than once that there are Spanish-language ads in the New York City subway cars imploring people to go to Montgomery County to collect welfare. Judge Aison, however, saw this differently. “I think people come up here because they know people. This welfare stuff is a way to express prejudice against Puerto Ricans.”

One Saturday afternoon, I spoke with two older white men in a fast food restaurant on the edge of the city, listening to them talk about the good old days before urban renewal, back when there were places to sit in public. The men described the mythical welfare-encouraging signs in the subways to me and they complained about Puerto Rican people living in Amsterdam. “There are four gangs around here,” one of the men said. “Well, at least that’s what they tell us on TV every time they want to increase the police force,” he continued. “They keep increasing the police force. That’s why we’re in the hole.”

There were 1,192 arrests made in Montgomery County in 2015, and 1,208 in 2016. And since Judge Aison’s retirement at the end of 2015, the jail incarceration rate in Montgomery County has decreased by 30 percent. His replacement, Judge Lisa Lorman, worked as a part-time judge for the City of Amsterdam during the last eight years of Judge Aison’s tenure. She has made it clear that she has a different judicial philosophy than her predecessor. “I’m really struggling with incarcerating people if they have to pay fines,” she said. “I really struggle with that. I don’t think that’s my job, to be a revenue collector. It’s about being fair and just.” As Judge Lorman tells it, she has faced criticism within her office and from the police department for not being tough enough—and for a drop in court revenue. “Everybody wants the judge to be a hard-ass until it’s you that’s in front of them, or your kid,” she said. “But you know, not until you’re in that position do you understand. Until you’re the defendant and you’re facing incarceration. Or it’s your family member; your son, your daughter. So I always think of that, in the back of my mind.”

Iob Montgomery Overpass

These days, Broome County, which includes the city of Binghamton, has the distinction of having the highest rate of jail incarceration in the state, at 39 per 10,000 people in 2016, compared to 29 for Montgomery County. Warren County, in the southeastern Adirondack Mountains, has more county residents locked up in state prisons than any other county: 74 people per 10,000 in 2014, more than double the rate of New York City. Even after the 30 percent decrease in incarceration following Judge Aison’s retirement, Montgomery County’s incarceration rates are still much higher than both the statewide average and the rates in New York’s major urban areas. And in deindustrialized Amsterdam, the empty textile mills still tower over lives that are made more precarious by an overactive and predatory justice system. Across upstate New York, 20 years of jail and prison expansion has provided the infrastructure for people to be incarcerated.

After I said goodbye to Judge Aison, I walked out of his house into the early darkness of a winter evening, and started my car in the driveway, when someone rapped on the driver side. I opened the window and saw Aison, who had followed me out in the cold to add one more thing before I left. “I don’t know if I told you this,” he said, “but it’s important. The biggest problem in the criminal justice system right now is that there’s no media. So people do whatever they want. No one is watching.”