“Siberia in the Berkshires”: Monroe Forest Prison Camp

Sagas of the Shire, by Joe Durwin

Monroe Camp 2-

Hundreds of nearby residents filled the school auditorium, voicing fierce opposition to the project during a meeting that would several times descend into angry shouting and name calling.  Most agreed the proposal would be a blight upon the natural beauty of the forest, lower property values, hurt tourism and present a palpable danger to area residents.

“Siberia in the Berkshires,” one speaker dubbed it, furious at the state’s proposal to place a prison camp in one of the local forests.

Such was the reaction of townspeople from Becket and Washington in 1954 to the concept of a new prison camp to be set up in October Mountain Forest.

By that time, the Commonwealth itself was no stranger to the concept of woodland prison camps.  During World War II, the military had established a camp for prisoners of war amidst 1500 acres of forest outside Taunton. Following the war, some twenty five miles east of there, the state in 1952 established its first minimum security work camp in Myles Standish State Forest, which today still houses around 200 inmates as the Plymouth Massachusetts Correctional Institution.

This contentious July 1 meeting at the Becket Consolidated School was not the first or last hearing of its kind as state correctional officials sought a western Massachusetts site for another penal work camp, though it was the largest and most chaotic.

Initially, Monroe State Forest had been the forerunner choice advanced for the project, a suggestion that had drawn equal rancor from surrounding North County citizenry.  A petition was put forth by 175 signers in Florida voicing their resistance to the plan early that year.

“I don’t think the people who favor building a prison camp in the town of Florida area  realize what little police protection we have,” said Louis Canedy, one of the leaders of its opposition, said in March.

Savoy was also eyed as a possible location, but was ruled out early on in the process as non-ideal geographically for a work camp, and Savoy residents seemed no more welcome than had been those in other Berkshire towns. Pittsfield State Forest was another option under consideration, and began to look more preferable due to more proximal police presence in the event of a mishap, along with rising resistance in the hill towns.

Pittsfield state Representative Arthur Milne was a vocal proponent of the idea, extolling its potential benefit in the press and arranging to meet with correctional Commissioner Arthur Lyman shortly after the backlash erupted in Becket.

“If northern Berkshire is afraid of a proposed prison camp as reports indicate, then central and southern Berkshires should lose no time in notifying … [Lyman] that such a rehabilitation project would be welcome.”

How welcome it actually was quickly came into question as Pittsfielders heard attention was now turning to their forest for consideration, and a large protest meeting was held later that month.  While many local officials throughout the county had voiced favor for the project as they eyed potential savings on projects from the free labor, general public opinion was overwhelmingly to the contrary.  No one wanted it in their back yard.

image (73)By early August, Hancock’s citizenry had joined the growing number of opponents to siting the camp in the abutting Pittsfield State Forest.  Perhaps in desperation, various groups began suggesting other alternatives to the four forests already under consideration, including a proposition by members of the Flintstone Grange of Dalton to  put it on the slopes of Greylock.

Other organizations, such as the Berkshire Farm Bureau, voted in favor of resolutions to keep it out of the area entirely.  Commissioner Lyman continued to try to allay concerns about what a correctional camp would actually look like, touting the success of the Plymouth prototype, but remained carefully noncommittal about any particular preference among the Berkshire sites being considered.

“The effect of the human and material resources as accomplished by the member-inmates at the prison camp has been a true inspiration,” Lyman counseled concerned Berkshirites, adding that the rate of successful readjustment for paroled inmates from the existing camp was 95 percent, whereas 80 percent was considered very good for release from a normal prison.

By December, word came from Boston that the choices for a new camp in the western part of the state had been narrowed down to either October Mountain, or more probably further east in Hubbardston state forest, owing to the extent of Berkshire County opposition.  As subsequent announcement in February 1955 confirmed the latter as the preferred site.

“Maybe in the future, after the people in the western parts simmer down, we can convince them that a forest camp will not be a detriment to the district,” said corrections official E. Lawrence Spurr, though he acknowledged the Hubbardston site was not entirely definite.

In early June, however, Spurr returned with a surprise, announcing that Monroe Forest would be the site after all, with most of it in the town of Florida- despite what he called “almost fanatical opposition” from area residents. Spurr said this site offered the greatest “development opportunities” in forestry for putting the inmates to work.

Florida residents expressed shock and dismay at the announcement, but saw little way of stopping the project, as ultimate decision authority rested with the Commissioner of Corrections, and the public hearings required by law had already been held the previous summer.

Over the next few days, Florida selectmen registered objections, and even explored the possibility of obtaining an injunction against the project commencing.  By that time, however, work had already begun to prepare an old CCC camp to its new purpose.

The prison camp in Monroe forest was opened a few weeks later, when eight guards and 15 prisoners arrived to begin erecting buildings in mid July.  By the following summer, the camp had been built up to its full capacity of 50 inmates.

Also by the summer of 1956, planning had begun for the state’s 3rd camp, this one intended for October Mountain.  Aware of the fierce resistance encountered from Becket and Washington residents in recent years, corrections officials worked hard to publicize the success of the 2nd camp.  Forest work, hand crafts, and blood donations organized by these “model prisoners” were lauded, and a Christmas charity tradition of refurbishing used toys for needy youngsters in the area was added as another of their projects.

By late 1957, the state said it hoped to have the proposed October Mountain camp operational by 1958, though Brimfield State Forest was also in the running as an alternative.  Ultimately, budget cuts to the program in 1959 killed that project for good.

Meanwhile, despite early assurances that escapes would be unlikely from the lightly guarded internment camp because it would house only prisoners who had behaved well and were near the end of their sentence, this only lasted for the first two years.  After that, at least one or two escapes occurred virtually each year.

The first were Charles Kileen and Philip Purnell, who slipped the guards during a work detail in Clarksburg State Forest and made off in a local man’s car in August of 1957.  Six months later, Raymond Flemming broke free and skipped town in a vehicle misappropriated from a Florida resident.  Six weeks after that, Girard Alliette followed suit in a stolen state truck, but was apprehended in Winchenden four hours later.

More successful was Chester Sylvester in October of 1959, who evaded justice for a full three months before being caught in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1961, Allen Clark and Robert Bastok stole the Florida Police Chief’s truck, abandoned it in Savoy, then continued on in another stolen car from there to New York City before hitchhiking on all the way to Oklahoma.  Two inmates in 1962 slipped out under cover of dark and made it as far as North Adams on foot, where they broke into a garage and tried to make their getaway in a tow truck before being stopped at a roadblock.  The following year, an armed robber by the name of Henry Frechette made his exit in one of the guard’s vehicles after tying him up, then led police on a heated chase across all of Pittsfield, first by authomobile and then across a string of backyards on foot after running the car off the road on West Housatonic Street.

Despite continued assurances of increased security, prisoners continued to fly the coop in ones and twos each year, until in the mid 1970s a series of incidents in rapid succession led to major community backlash.  In late 1976, several assaults and other misdeeds occurred in northern Berkshire County, both by escapees and prisoners on a work release program, leading to suspension of the work release program and a new local advisory committee to study the camp more closely.

Most chilling was the disappearance of Carol Ann Todd, a schoolteacher who went missing from the Sheraton Inn in North Adams on December 12.  Authorities immediately questioned Robert Nimblett, a Monroe inmate working at the hotel through the work release program, but as yet had no proof a crime had been committed.

image (71)

Proof came on May 29, when two local scouts came across her body wrapped in a sheet in Monroe forest, just outside the prison camp itself.  Nimblett was indicted within the week in the murder of the 28 year old teacher.

Following a deal to plea down to a charge of manslaughter, Nimblett, who said he’d killed the woman by accident with multiple stab wounds after she panicked while he was doing room checks, was sentenced to 18 to 20 years at Walpole.

image (72)Community outrage had reached a peak against the camp, which had also grown dilapidated due to years of underfunding.  Unwilling to pay for costly repairs, and overwhelmed by negative public pressure, state corrections officials finally threw in the towel on the Monroe State Prison Camp.  The last of its prisoners were transferred out in April, 1978.

Today, the Plymouth MCI remains as the first and last facility from the Commonwealth’s experimental foray into forest prison sites.

Nearly forty years after its abandonment, the Monroe camp is long since vanished virtually without a trace, save for a few bits of concrete and metal refuse in a clearing in the woods.

Only an overgrown dirt lane marked “Prison Camp Road” (off Main Road in Monroe State Forest) remains as tangible evidence of this once feared and controversial place.

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