Every week, the expressions of love and support pour into Whitesburg, Kentucky’s Mountain Community Radio, WMMT, like messages in a bottle from friends and family to inmates incarcerated in the seven state or federal prisons within the reach of the station’s signal.
On a recent episode of the show “Calls from Home,” a woman told her man: “You know I got you. I couldn’t ask for a better husband.” Another caller said: “I love you with all my heart, forever and a day. Have amazing dreams. Good night. I love you.”
If the local Republican congressman, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, has his way, the federal government will construct another prison, this one near Roxana, a tiny Letcher County community 7.5 miles west of Whitesburg, potentially atop what’s left of a mountain after dynamite removed its top and coal was carried away.
As “Calls From Home” suggests, the prison business is booming in the mountains of Central Appalachia. The growth has occurred alongside the decline of the coal industry, with at least five prisons built atop old coal mines, said Judah Schept, a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, based in Richmond.
Schept is author of “Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia,” a 2022 book that examines how prisons became economic development strategies for rural Appalachian communities.
In all, there are 16 federal or state prisons in a Central Appalachian area that includes eastern Kentucky, and parts of neighboring West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. Eastern Kentucky has eight of those, Schept said.
“Half of those eight are federal prisons, which is really unusual,” he said.
Three of the four have been built since 1992, with the backing of Rogers, who has represented eastern Kentucky for 42 years.
Rogers has been working to get a federal prison in Letcher County for nearly 20 years, already securing more than $500 million in federal funds. But, this is a prison that some in Rogers’ own party haven’t wanted; the Trump administration said it wasn’t needed, and in 2019, the Federal Bureau of Prisons withdrew its plans for a high-security penitentiary and prison camp on the former surface mine in Roxana, one with a potential inmate population of 1,400.
Then, last year, the Bureau of Prisons resurrected the proposal when it filed a notice to conduct a new environmental impact assessment. Rogers quickly praised the agency, saying at the time that “with more than 300 jobs on the line, it’s a battle worth fighting in a region where jobs are desperately needed.”
In July, opponents, including members of the group Concerned Letcher Countians, were furious to find out about language inserted by Rogers in an appropriation bill by the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which Rogers chairs. It seeks to fast track the project in a way that would prevent further public comment or environmental review, and protect construction and operation of the prison from judicial review.
“The planning and work to build a federal prison in Letcher County has continued over the span of nearly 17 years,” Rogers said in a written statement. “During that time, every possible study has been conducted in Roxana, along with an abundance of public comments and thorough reviews from every angle. It only makes sense to reuse the studies, comments and reviews that have already been conducted, when possible, to save taxpayer dollars.”
The debate over the proposed new prison comes in the aftermath of devastating flooding in the area in the summer of 2022. Across eastern Kentucky, the flooding was worse than ever, contributing to at least 44 deaths when up to 16 inches of rain fell from July 26 to 29, 2022, sometimes as heavily as 4 inches per hour. The result was widespread devastation, including in Letcher County.
With the prison fight fully engaged, Inside Climate News spoke with Schept, who has been studying Central Appalachian prison issues for more than a decade. He said he has come to the conclusion that neither the federal government nor eastern Kentucky needs more prisons.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your book mentions that most new prisons are being built in rural communities, but that Central Appalachia stands out. In your book, you refer to the term, “coal to cages.” What is the connective tissue between the region’s coal mining legacy and locating prisons in distressed coal communities?
That connection happens in a lot of different ways. In the most self-evident way, I think there’s fewer coal jobs now than at any time since the industry began. I think there are about 4,000 coal jobs left in the state of Kentucky. That’s the lowest total since something like 1895. In contrast, there are now just about twice that many correctional officer jobs in the state of Kentucky. It’s something like 7,500.
So the prison jobs have somewhat displaced coal jobs, or at least have grown during the same period that coal jobs have declined so precipitously. And of course, those rural prisons are proposed and built on those very (coal-mining) grounds. To hear how Rogers or other local prison boosters put it, the prisons are almost like a rural jobs program.
There are a number of problems with that argument. One is that 7,500 correctional officer jobs is about a tenth of the number of mining jobs in the state of Kentucky during the height of the industry. The other issue with the jobs question, particularly at the federal level: Those jobs on the whole don’t necessarily go to local residents, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that the requirements to be a correctional officer in a federal prison are relatively high.
And then, of course, at least in a few places, mountaintop removal mining produces huge expanses of land on which people like Rogers or local county elites try to imagine all kinds of economic development opportunities, and at least in a few places, building prisons, which raises all kinds of environmental issues.
Is it a failure of imagination in the minds of eastern Kentucky residents who advocate for prisons as economic development? Or, because the land has been pretty ravaged by mining, is it just harder to get other forms of economic development?
People who live in Letcher county who are opposed to the prisons have said they could have been pursuing all kinds of other potential options for economic development. And despite some of the challenges like in the realm of logistics or transportation, there are railroads everywhere. And, you know, something manufactured in a factory built in Letcher County where the prison is intended could conceivably be put on a train that day and shipped wherever, you know. So it is to an extent a failure of imagination, on the part of politicians and other county-level leadership, who just in some respects put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to the prisons.
How does prison development fit into the ongoing discussion of finding a “just economic transition” for coal communities like those in the region?
To me, and I think to a lot of activists in the region, a just transition requires, of course, shifting away from an extractive industry, but also doing so in a way that isn’t built on the backs of other poor people, marginalized communities and communities subjected to environmental injustices, the principles which would all be violated by building prisons. Any kind of thorough interrogation of what just transition means should lead someone to conclude that a prison does not belong in a just transition framework, on basic principles of economic, racial, environmental justice. The prisons themselves don’t address any of the ecological and environmental harms that have occurred in Eastern Kentucky and can’t begin to address them, and in some cases might exacerbate them.
Rep. Rogers has put some language in a bill that would limit or exempt environmental reviews for the proposed Letcher County federal prison. What do you see the Congressman trying to do with that? And what might the consequences be?
The language he introduced directs the attorney general to end the environmental impact study, and use the environmental impact study from 2018, which by definition would preclude the environmental impact study from accounting for changes to the county or the impact to the county from the (recent) floods.
It instructs the attorney general to use the (Bureau of Prison’s) Record of Decision from 2018, which essentially means move forward with construction. And then it also says the actions of the AG and the director of the Bureau of Prisons should not be subjected to judicial review. So it’s thoroughly anti-democratic.
Moreover, language that’s about the operations of the prison not being subjected to judicial review is a little opaque to me. I’m concerned that would mean that that prison, or for that matter, potentially other prisons, and the actions inside of them, including various forms of violence, would not be subjected to accountability and transparency and review. So there’s all kinds of things about that language, that are really, really concerning.
You are also concerned about environmental consequences of not conducting a new environmental impact assessment, too, right? Please explain.
Well, we’re talking about $500 million in construction, right? It would be the most expensive federal prison ever built, built on a mountaintop removal site, in the middle of the coal fields a mile away from an existing mine, and an existing coal slurry pond in one of the counties hardest hit by the 2022 floods.
The consequences of that construction would have all kinds of impact for all kinds of flora and fauna, to say nothing of the potential humans who would be incarcerated there. So at the most minimum level of transparency and accountability and attention to ecology, there needs to be some kind of baseline environmental review process, like the one required under federal environmental law. And it’s just ludicrous to think that such a vastly huge construction project in this particular geography would move forward without it.
What would you say to people who might be thinking that society needs to put convicted criminals someplace? Why not in rural eastern Kentucky like the Congressman wants?
I would dispute the premise. I would say we don’t need these places. I think we’ve built out our criminal justice capacity and infrastructure far too much over the last four decades. And we thoroughly need other things to address problems and harms and crises for which the prisons are the putative solutions. They are just not. They exacerbate all the things we think they might solve.
So no, we don’t need any more of them anywhere, and certainly not in eastern Kentucky. And I would say, eastern Kentucky deserves better. These are not good jobs. They don’t often go to eastern Kentucky residents anyway. And this is not the recession proof industry that the boosters often claim if we turn a corner and decide at the level of the state or whatever, to reduce our reliance on mass incarceration, as many people across the political spectrum believe.
We need to close prisons. They’ve closed in upstate rural New York, and rural communities are the ones that pay the price of that. I think it’s precisely the moment in which to say, Eastern Kentucky has been subjected to exploitation and expropriation for hundreds of years at this point, and the prisons add another layer on to that. It’s time for something better.