Skip to main content

Cages in the Coalfields

A growing carceral state has slowly replaced the coal industry in large swaths of Central Appalachia. But even here, a different future is possible.

Judah_BW-Book_letcher field buildings

Mitch Whitaker wants to be able to hunt with his birds. A certified “master falconer,” he hunts throughout the year with raptors on his land in Roxana, an unincorporated community in Letcher County, Kentucky. Whitaker is a fourth-generation resident of the county, hunting with and rehabilitating injured birds of prey on the same land that his grandfather defended from coal companies when they attempted to take it from him — as they did around the Central Appalachian coalfields, using the nefarious broad form deed in order to claim the valuable mineral rights under the ground of residents’ homes.

These days, however, coal companies no longer threaten to take his family’s land and livelihood. Instead, it’s the United States Bureau of Prisons.

In 2015, after nearly 10 years of discussion and planning, the Bureau of Prisons launched its official scoping and siting period to build United States Penitentiary Letcher and an adjoining Federal Prison Camp — a maximum security prison and minimum security facility on 700 acres in Roxana, a small portion of which would include Whitaker’s land. In the ensuing years, the BOP would conduct the environmental review required by federal law and would collaborate with local officials in a campaign to site the prisons. In response, a coalition of local organizers, landowners like Mitch, national environmental attorneys, and people in prison formed in opposition.

In a region known best for the coal industry and through media portrayals of the mythical “Trump Country,” Letcher County became perhaps an unlikely front in the broader class war project of carceral state building.

The attempt to build the prisons, known collectively as USP Letcher, is one of the central concerns of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia, my forthcoming book, which examines how prisons have come to shape, and take shape in, Central Appalachia. Had it been built, USP Letcher would have been the eighth prison just in eastern Kentucky, as well as the sixth federal prison in the broader Central Appalachia region — not to mention the most expensive federal prison in U.S. history, with a price tag of $444 million. The majority of the region’s 16 prisons have been built just since the early 1990s, part of the wave of rural prison construction to occur in the United States during the rise of the carceral state.

It is important to understand the carceral state at the different scales of its expression. Four of eastern Kentucky’s prisons are federal facilities, the product of U.S. Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers’ decades-long strategy of pursuing prisons as economic development. In addition, the state prison population has continued to grow, despite Kentucky having passed sentencing reform. Today, Kentucky has the second highest rate of incarceration for women in the United States; if Kentucky were its own country, it would have the seventh highest incarceration rate in the world. A recent Vera Institute of Justice report concluded that if Kentucky were to maintain its current rate of incarceration growth, everyone in the state will be incarcerated in 113 years. In addition to two state prisons in the region — one built in 1990 and the other in 2005 — Kentucky has also just reopened a private prison, leasing it from CoreCivic to house state prisoners. This recent maneuver, done just years after the state ended its contract with CoreCivic, was due to the fact that there are now 24,000 state prisoners but just under 12,000 state prison beds. In the most local expression of carceral state growth, Kentucky has turned toward county jails to house almost half the prisoners under the custody of the state Department of Corrections. In turn, many communities are expanding their jails or building new ones

But drastic increases to incarcerated populations is only a part of the story. In Central Appalachia, the rise and expansion of prisons and jails express the state’s primary approach to rural development as well as its chief response to crises at the points of both production (or work) and what scholars call social reproduction. County jails, for example, have been eager to oblige the Department of Corrections’ devolution of state prisoners, as the per-diem payments from the state — as well as from federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals — help to offset local revenue shortages. These have been particularly severe in eastern Kentucky due to the decline of coal production, and with it the loss of receipts from the coal severance tax, a once-reliable source of millions of dollars of annual revenue for coalfield communities.

In short, prison and jail jobs have overtaken coal jobs in Kentucky by thousands of positions.

In addition, as coal jobs have declined rapidly, the number of prison jobs has risen steadily. There are 3,760 existing coal jobs in Kentucky, by far the lowest total since the 19th century. In a telling comparison, there are now far more corrections jobs in the state — 6,640 — although that number does not include the medical, clerical, and mental health workers who also work inside of prisons. In short, prison and jail jobs have overtaken coal jobs in Kentucky by thousands of positions. In a story headlined “Corrections Replace Coal in eastern Kentucky,” published more than 20 years ago, one industry publication observed, “In Kentucky’s coal country, prisons have become the cornerstone of an economic renewal meant to offset the decline of coal mining.” Three new prisons have opened since then.

Coal-Carceral Contiguities

The coal industry has left many traces in Central Appalachian communities, including high cancer rates, hollowed out communities, and polluted water tables. But there may be no greater material and symbolic evidence of the coal industry’s assault on the region than mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal, or MTR, involves the use of explosives to blow off the tops of mountains in order to access the coal seams underneath. Companies follow the decapitation by disposing of the rubble in surrounding streams and valleys. In its ruthless and destructive efficiency as well as its maximization of profit through minimization of labor costs, mountaintop removal is the “logical product of neoliberalism,” as the anthropologist Bryan McNeil has argued. Sociologist Rebecca Scott expands on this categorization, arguing that the practice is the “realization in the landscape of the neoliberal translation of everything into market forms.” She adds that MTR “violently transforms the ground into a literal coalfield, where everything else — human communities, the forest, and other natural resources — have been erased.”

Mining near the proposed site for United States Penitentiary Letcher, in Letcher County, Kentuky. (Image: Jill Frank.)

Such violence against the landscape has brought dramatic change to Appalachian communities in the form of decapitated peaks, denuded mountains, devastated streams, and depopulated communities. That is, the practice has quite literally reshaped the terrain of the region, including the loss of 1 million acres of forest, the leveling of hundreds of miles of ridgeline, the burial of thousands of miles of streams, and the razing of more than 500 mountains. MTR’s putative efficiency as a form of extraction is directly related to its seeming independence from actual workers; one operator on a mountaintop removal strip job can perform the same amount of work as 22 underground miners. In flattening mountains while also devastating once-reliable work opportunities, MTR created both the spatial and economic conditions for new ideas of economic development, including prisons, to be projected. In a number of places in the coalfields, prisons are built right on top of MTR sites.

Martin County, Kentucky is home to United States Penitentiary Big Sandy, which was completed in 2003 on both a former underground mine and a mountaintop removal site. MTR accounts for 70% of the coal mined in the county; 27% of the county’s surface mountainous land has been strip-mined. Other elements of the coal industry now share the former mountaintop with the prison, including coal slurry impoundments — toxic ponds that hold liquid coal waste. The prison’s contiguity with the coal industry has had serious repercussions. A guard tower was found to be sinking into an abandoned mineshaft before construction was even complete. The additional site remediation work required meant that USP Big Sandy is believed to hold the record as the most expensive federal prison ever built.

The prison also brings into stark relief the dubiousness of regional economic development strategies. The site of the launch of the war on poverty in 1964 as well as a horrific environmental disaster in 2000, when 306 million gallons of coal slurry spilled into local regional waterways, Martin County remains a symbol of the coal industry’s extraction of wealth and the severe limitations of carceral state development. In 2018, 15 years after the completion of USP Big Sandy, U.S. News and World Report ranked Martin County as “the worst-performing county with an above-average share of white residents” in the United States. Back in 2002, after the prison was discovered to be sinking into the mine below it, local residents began referring to it as “Sink Sink,” a sardonic reference to the infamous New York prison. But given the slurry ponds, spills, and mountaintop removal, as well as the role of prisons in the enforced idling of surplus populations, perhaps we should also understand “Sink Sink” as a diagnostic of the historic role of the site as a “sink” for the waste produced by racial capitalism.

“A Future for Our Children”

The crisis in Central Appalachia is experienced most acutely at the scale of community and household. Just during the period of my research, from 2011 to 2018, eastern Kentucky lost 73% of its already-dwindling coal jobs. In some counties, revenue loss from diminishing coal severance tax monies has resulted in the inability to fund basic services like fire departments and senior citizen centers. In Martin County, residents cannot bathe in or drink the water because the county doesn’t have the funds to update aging water infrastructure. How do residents plan for futures amidst such conditions?

In many communities, the presence or prospect of a prison is what underwrites the ability to see a future in the region. Prisons are often sutured to, and sometimes structure, everything from county grant applications for infrastructure funding to high school and postsecondary educational program and curriculum development to hopes for stabilizing rural health care facilities. In Coal, Cages, Crisis, I refer to this as “carceral social reproduction,” or the ways that prisons and jails increasingly produce and rely on “the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life.”

Considerable evidence from my research bears this out. In Wheelwright, Kentucky, a former coal company town, the county judge-executive longed for the reopening of the town’s decommissioned private prison, noting, “Two-hundred people [working here], plus family members, that’s going to be visiting our restaurants, our gas stations — it’ll [generate additional] housing for our community.” Moreover, he noted, the prison would galvanize a broader “custodial” effort, remarking that it would “clean the city up. Clean ditches up. You know, new infrastructure . . . . It’s a great thing.”

In Letcher County, the prospect of the federal prison enabled the county to apply for and receive needed infrastructure funds. In 2018, officials successfully secured $4.5 million in federal grant funding from the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Grants program for both the construction of a sewage plant and the extension of nine miles of water lines to the Roxana site, all in anticipation of USP Letcher. The AML fund, the product of years of organizing and lobbying by activists, is intended to support projects that assist in transitioning the region away from coal and that offer environmental remediation. But the application language for the funds is vague, and the water line extensions would connect 100 additional residents to city water. The aging infrastructure, polluted groundwater, and needed extensions were not enough, on their own, to qualify for the funds. It was only when those needs could be grafted onto the prospect of the prison that officials were able to secure the funding.

Perhaps the most consequential sign of the prison’s anticipated impact occurred in education. Before the official scoping period had even begun, the county began restructuring programming and curricula in anticipation of the carceral economy, proposing new criminal justice and law tracks at area high schools and vocational schools and partnering with four-year universities to offer bachelor’s degrees. As one local criminal justice student at the community and technical college argued in a comment submitted to the Bureau of Prisons, the prison would “bring a whole new atmosphere” to the county by facilitating partnerships between universities and community colleges toward the development of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. She continued,

This is the perfect combination for our future generations to change the trajectory of their lives! To bring a future and a hope to our children. The construction jobs would allow financial independence for a lot of the coal miners that have lost their jobs. We have many hard working, God fearing, men and women in this area that really need this opportunity to support themselves and their families. . . . With this opportunity, our community could produce a whole new generation of law enforcement in many different fields.

A BOP employee who lived in Harlan, Kentucky, and commuted to work at a federal prison in Virginia concurred, noting USP Letcher would bring “new careers with great benefits, local business with more income. . . . [The] local housing market will prosper . . . . Local schools will have more students and with more students comes a better budget and better opportunities for learning. Local hospitals will be able to sign contracts with the prison to provide care for prison staff members and inmates in the occurrence of an emergency. Also prospering will be the local police force, fire departments, [and] EMS. . . .”

Jobs and revenue, infrastructure and planning, education and health care. In these and other testimonies I examine in the book, the prison provides more than just immediate relief in the form of employment. Rather, the prison signals an enduring and extensive investment in the stability of the community — from producing the next generation of workers to bringing more students to schools, patients to healthcare facilities, support to social services, and updates and expansions to infrastructure. Central Appalachian communities are responding to the shifting ground, quite literally, occurring in their communities and look to the prison in order “to set the stage for ordinary working people to accept extraordinary measures in hope of securing livelihoods.”

A political economy organized around extraction, waste, and incarceration is profoundly racialized. In Central Appalachia, it deputizes and deploys largely white communities experiencing precarity and crisis into forms of “guard labor” to manage other people experiencing precarity and crisis, disproportionately from communities of color.

Of course, a political economy organized around extraction, waste, and incarceration is profoundly racialized. In Central Appalachia, it deputizes and deploys largely white communities experiencing precarity and crisis into forms of “guard labor” to manage other people experiencing precarity and crisis, disproportionately from communities of color. For people on the inside, time in prison often portends what one criminologist has called “the jobless future.” Moreover, in incarcerating people hundreds and even thousands of miles away from home, and proximate to sites of extractive violence and toxic disposal, the prison strains family connections while also reproducing the environmental racism to which low-income urban communities of color are often subjected, but in places where there are few people of color outside of the prison. In the work of criminalization and employment to bring two different, and differently racialized, groups of people together on opposite sides of the cage, we should understand the prison as enacting a key function of racial capitalism, what Jodi Melamed calls “densely connected social separateness.”

The Plot of Abolition

As jails and prisons have become dominant development strategies for communities experiencing various elements of capitalist crisis, so too has opposition coalesced.

Back in Roxana, Mitch Whitaker’s diagnosis of the forces at work to obtain his land led him to connect with a nascent collection of people trying to find points of leverage to challenge USP Letcher. Locally, this included a group of primarily young people organizing as the Letcher Governance Project, whose opposition to the prison was rooted in both an abolitionist analysis of the carceral state and as part of a broader intervention into the long history of undemocratic and corporate-friendly local government in the region.

In conversation with southern movement organizations, LGP coined the hashtag #our444million in order to reject the prison while demanding meaningful, community-controlled investment in Letcher County. Joining Whitaker and the LGP were attorneys and activists from national organizations fighting for environmental justice and prisoners’ rights. Targeting the environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act, they submitted methodical challenges to the Bureau of Prisons’ environmental assessments and organized experts from around the region and country, who warned of the prison’s impact to habitat, health, and environment. Together with prisoners, with whom movement attorneys collaborated on a lawsuit against the BOP, this coalition relied on distinct but complementary strategies aimed at disrupting dominant development discourses and calling attention to the prison’s potential negative environmental impacts. Their work effectively undermined the prison’s legitimacy, while also stalling the environmental review process for years.

As political conditions shifted under the Trump administration, including the incoherence of calling for prison reform with the passage of the First Step Act while investing in violent, racialized caging and wall-building at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Bureau of Prisons could no longer justify the prison. Under threat of a lawsuit featuring incarcerated plaintiffs alongside local residents, the BOP officially withdrew its Record of Decision, effectively ending the campaign to build. 

Coal, Cages, Crisis examines the contested extractive and carceral geographies of Central Appalachia. While indexed to sentencing and corrections policies, the growth of prisons and jails in the region during historic declines of coal production and employment point to the state’s strategy for resolving crises of urban and rural uneven development: criminalization and incarceration. Crucially, this approach is not inevitable. Even as USP Letcher seemed inexorably moving toward construction, a coalition of activists — building on the legacy of Appalachian social movements — was able to interrupt the trajectory. In the process, they helped to imagine and plot something radically different, for Appalachia and beyond.

Image: Jill Frank