Hitting a Ski Jump in the Prison Yard

For a former inmate at one of New York’s maximum-security prisons, skiing was the ultimate escape

This interview was first published in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER.

Allan Haber spent his first ski season in Upstate New York. He was 28 years old. He didn't ski at Whiteface, or Hunter Mountain, or in the backcountry, or anywhere else you'd recognize, unless you were also a convicted felon. As a young man, Haber dealt heroin during the late '60s and '70s, which resulted in 15 years in and out of maximum-security facilities, including Sing Sing and the Clinton Correctional Facility.

PHOTO: Nate Abbott

While incarcerated at Clinton, Haber learned to ski on a massive jump inmates built at the compound every fall. Every day, on donated skis, all winter long, he and the other prisoners sent it. In the shadows of gun towers, he unlocked a state of freedom. After his release, Haber earned undergrad and law degrees from New York University. He continued to ski and finally learned how to carve a turn.

Now 77 years old, he is a prominent criminal defense lawyer in the city. Three hip replacements led him to hang up his skis, but his fight for freedom carries on.

Clare: How many days did you ski a season?
Allan: In the winter, all we could do was ski. They've got a lot of snow up there near the Canadian border.

Where did your skis come from?
I came up with the bright idea to write ski companies and beg for skis. My letters would say that I was an inmate at an institution and that every year we would build a ski jump, and that I was sure they had stock that was obsolete—but it wouldn't be obsolete for inmates in jail.

How exactly did this thing get built?
We used to build the jump every year out of 100-pound chicken feed bags. We would fill the bags with snow. People were serving a lot of time in that prison.

It sounds like a big push to build that.
You had to have a community of muscle to fill these bags, tie them, and place them—a lot of work. It would take close to a month to build it, and anywhere from five to 10 inmates working.

And you just went out there and figured it out on a giant prison-yard jump?
The yard was on an incline, and you would pick up tremendous speed. You just kept going down until you figured it out. Most of the time, you'd land on your butt. You learned gradually and hoped you didn't get hurt in the process. I saw a broken limb or two, maybe a wrist or a leg.

Were you already a skier?
I had not ever skied before. They just strapped a pair of skis on me, and I climbed up.

Sounds risky.
It was so different from any experience you could possibly have in jail. I didn't take it for granted. I was thrilled to do it. Most inmates were afraid to do it, and didn't do it. But I loved it.

Do inmates at Clinton still send it?
I was shocked they stopped [building the jump]. It's a good diversion for inmates. It keeps them occupied. It gives them incentive to get up the next day and do something. It's good for mental health.

Nothing like a little taste of freedom, right?
When you were on the jump, you were not in prison. It was like reading a book and leaving the institution… When you're in the air, you're focusing, you're not thinking about being in jail—or anything, for that matter—except getting through the jump. You really leave the institution, even if it's only for a short period of time.