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US Inmates Build Ice Palace

Photographer: CJ Gunther


Each winter in Saranac Lake, New York, USA, the lakes and rivers freeze allowing the tradition of ice harvesting to continue. Dating back to 1897, the ice is specially earmarked for residents to build an ice castle for the annual winter carnival. The first castles were built by ‘Icemen’, who made their winter income from the harvest and sale of the ice to chill drinks and food in New York City, about 300 miles (485 Km) south. When refrigeration replaced the need to harvest ice, volunteers carried on with the annual ice castle construction.


Since 1995, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has provided a unique group of workers: inmates. The ‘Shock Incarceration Program’ provides 20-30 non-violent inmates to work as ice builders. Shock is a six-month, boot camp style program where prisoners participate in rigorous community service, substance abuse classes, and academic courses in exchange for a reduced sentence.


In Lake Saranac, this year's inmates are from the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a nearby penitentiary, and they assist with all aspects of building the ice castle. Their initial efforts consist of cutting blocks from the frozen lake and polling, or moving, the 400-600 pound (180-275 kg) blocks through open-water channels to the shore where they are lifted by cranes and moved to the castle construction area. They then mix snow and water to make a slushy mortar which serves as the cement that holds together the blocks of the castle.


The inmates are orderly and hard-working, differentiated from other volunteers by their green uniforms, reflective orange vests, and bring yellow hard hats. They work together like a well-trained team, side-by-side with the locals. When addressed, they respond with 'Yes, sir!' or 'No, sir! working without complaint despite the frigid temperatures, gusting winds, and physically demanding work. When asked about the challenging working conditions, one remarks, 'I'm not inside today and that is a good thing'.