Monthly Archives: January 2023


In mid-November, 1982, I began my first career position as a medical practitioner (PA) at the medium-security Ray Brook Federal Prison in truly upstate NY- a few miles outside of Lake Placid, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The facility in fact had been built to serve as the Olympic Village with the idea it would be converted to a prison. I figured I would get a year of experience and move on, but as is so common I ended up buying a house and a year became 3 years, 2 months, and 2 weeks before I moved on to a much more fulfilling job (a longer commute and less pay initially, but it was worth it). Prison medicine is challenging, sometimes rewarding, and often interesting, but not something I wanted to do for 20 years.

Most people’s idea of a prison is probably derived from TV and movies, and sometimes there is overlap with reality. Myths include prison staff carry weapons inside, which is never true, though outside perimeter security definitely includes a variety of weapons. During much of my time we had perhaps 800 convicts, and during the night shift there were maybe 10 or 12 staff on, including the PA (24 hour medical care was available)- in other words, the convicts essentially allow the staff to maintain control. This is not out of a sense of altruism, but the reality that, barring some apocalyptic event, they could never control the outside, and eventually would loose control inside, with consequences.

Having never been in a prison before I was pleasantly surprised to discover the convicts were treated with basic respect and human dignity: never once did I hear of a convict getting a “whooping” at the hands of staff, for example. It’s possible popularized stereotypical abuse did occur at other prisons, but we were quite remotely located and the employee pool was mostly rural people who didn’t inherently carry grudges. The relatively respectful environment certainly wasn’t due to the warden, who was an arrogant popinjay obsessed with currying favor with those above him at the expense of employee morale and even security. If anything, his goal was to have his boots licked, and to lick the boots of those above; employees willing to lick his boots were not terribly uncommon. I have no fond recollections of him.

The demographics of the convicts were diverse in many metrics, including type of crime, race, and ethnicity. A plurality, if not majority, were young black men, but we had a large compliment of South Americans/Hispanics (mostly drugs, of course), and plenty of smaller groups- white collar types, Aryan Brotherhood types, Italian Mafia, white punks, and homosexuals of all ethnicities (of significance because this was at the very dawn of AIDS). Being a medium security joint, the criminals ran the gamut from murderers and rapists, bank robbers, pedophiles, thieves, organized crime and financial criminals and, of course, lots of drug offenders. By nature, Federal prisons are different from states joints, but I think there were more commonalities than not. As with most prisons, there is a jail within the prison- the segregation unit- in which convicts who commit rule infractions or actual crimes might be placed, as well as for other reasons.