By Christopher Zoukis
Almost as soon as the closing ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics Games finished in the new 35,000-seat Olympic stadium in PyeongChang, South Korea, traces of the massive international games began to disappear. Rather than try to preserve the huge (although roofless and unheated) main stadium– which would take nearly all of the surrounding county’s population to fill again – PyeongChang plans to tear down the structure, erecting just a small memorial hall to commemorate the athletic events that for a few weeks captured world attention.
But that’s not the way things went at Lake Placid, New York, upstate site of the 1980 Winter Olympics. When Congress in 1976 voted funds to build the Olympic Village, it required that federally-backed facilities have a “secondary use” after the athletic competitions were over. Before 1980 was done, the Olympic Village, which had contained five two-story dormitory-style buildings, each with two housing units, and each unit with two wings, to serve as temporary housing for thousands of international athletes, trainers and officials, had been transformed into a medium-level security federal prison for male inmates, the Federal Correctional Institute Ray Brook, run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), with inmates transferred in from other federal penal institutions.
Since the Olympics Village needed to house large numbers of athletes, almost 1,000 sleeping rooms were built, with dimensions of about eight feet by 13 feet. At least two athletes were assigned to each of these rooms. Partly to hold down costs, these cinder-block rooms either were windowless, or had only a single narrow window, with a steel rod running down the center of the glass. The original occupancy rating for the prison was around 750 inmates, but it often held as many as 1,000, although numbers have declined somewhat in recent years. By 1998, BOP found it necessary to convert some of the original housing from two-man cells to cells holding six inmates. Overcrowding drew complaints, operational issue and occasional lawsuits.
Even beyond its future use as a federal prison, heightened security was already a strong consideration in designing the Olympic Village housing. The terrorist attacks at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, Germany had taken place in the Olympic Village there, as Israeli athletes were held captive or killed there. The Ray Brook site chosen for the Olympic Village was somewhat isolated, eight miles distant from the center of Lake Placid. Besides athletes in competition, trainers and Olympic officials, only athletes’ family members and former Olympic participants were allowed entry, and the entire site was surrounded by 11-foot-high electric fences.
Nearby in the Lake Placid Olympic Village, six other buildings contained shopping and entertainment facilities, included cafeterias, a medical facility, a shopping center, a full-service bank, chapel, post office, and a recreation center, which featured a 350-seat theater, a cinema, a game room, and even a discotheque (it’s possible the remote Adirondack location had not heard the ‘70s had ended). By the time FCI Ray Brook opened, the former shopping center had been turned into a warehousing area, and the former recreation area now housed the prison chapel and chaplain’s office, the commissary and the psychology department.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com