Along the riverbanks of Eastern Kentucky, the redbud trees are just starting to bloom, their branches still lumbering under the weight of last summer’s catastrophic flood: Lawn chairs, trampolines, twisted gutters and school backpacks remain high in the treetops, each item a persistent and disorienting sign of how life here was turned upside down last July when shallow streams surged more than 18 feet in 10 hours in parts of the state, killing more than 40 people and leaving hundreds homeless. Yet while residents reach for the possibility of renewal, the largest regional investment being offered is a federal prison proposed for Letcher County, the heart of the flood zone.
The possible federal correctional institution adds insult to an already injured region. In 2019 activists defeated the proposal, demanding that the funds be used for more forward-thinking purposes, including safe and affordable housing — all the more needed since the flood. The Trump and Biden administrations recommended rescinding funding, with Trump’s calling the prison “unneeded” and “wasteful spending.” Yet because of the outsize influence of Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, who has served on the House Appropriations Committee for decades, the funds remain allocated, and so the Bureau of Prisons is back in Letcher County, trying to break ground.
With a price tag of over half a billion dollars, the prison is poised to receive more funding than the combined amount that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have earmarked for flood relief in Eastern Kentucky. Meanwhile, some residents are still living in temporary accommodations in state parks, travel trailers and even tents.
Such spending priorities reflect a century-long pattern of regional development premised on extraction and exploitation. Coal mining has devastated public health and the local ecology and most likely made the floods last summer worse. Prisons in Appalachia, many built on former strip-mining sites, fail to address coal’s legacy while perpetuating the horrors of mass incarceration. Mr. Rogers has already brought three federal prisons to his district in Eastern Kentucky, giving it one of the highest concentrations of federal correctional facilities nationwide. Yet the counties with these prisons remain three of the poorest in the country, with poverty rates over triple the national average. The evidence is overwhelming: Just as coal never brought broad-based prosperity to the region, nor do prisons.
For Dr. Artie Ann Bates, a psychiatrist and lifelong Letcher County resident, the proposed prison is “a trauma on top of the trauma.”
Her clients in the region have included both formerly incarcerated people and correctional officers. As she described this moment, “We managed somehow to survive strip mining, and that was awful. That’s sort of calming down because coal is gone mostly, and it seemed like maybe we were turning a corner. But then the flood broke us as an area.” After a sigh, she continued, “And now we’ve got to deal with this prison. Again.”
Having a prison come to town is now a familiar experience for many in Central Appalachia — and rural Americans across the country. Over the past four decades of mass incarceration, more than 350 prisons have been built in rural communities, promoted as economic development to address the crises of deindustrialization, environmental contamination and out-migration. In Eastern Kentucky, coal employment is near its lowest level in more than a century. Steep drops in coal production mean that a severance tax from mined coal that once upheld local budgets, including Letcher County’s, has all but dried up, leaving area officials desperate for new tax revenue.
Prison building offers a purported solution to these very real crises, yet it is a pernicious plan that promises to alleviate poverty for some through incarcerating others. It also reproduces stark racial inequalities. Letcher County, for example, is 98 percent white; the federal prison population is approximately 39 percent Black and 30 percent Hispanic. Importantly, rural prisons are also a disingenuous development strategy. A team of sociologists led by Dr. Gregory Hooks analyzed all new prison growth from 1960 to 2004 and found “no evidence” that prisons bring employment growth to rural counties.
The residents of Letcher County need no sociologist to persuade them of their reality. In 2019 community organizers, local landowners, national environmental attorneys and people in prison forged a coalition to defeat the first iteration of the prison. Using the hashtag #our444million, organizers demanded that the $444 million allocated to build the prison be redirected toward meeting their actual needs and desires.
Tanya Turner, a member of the coalition, said in 2020, “When you are just seeing so intimately every day what your community lacks, it’s hard not to dream about what that much money could do. People talked about rehab facilities, art centers, big maker spaces, all kinds of stuff.”
Mitch Whitaker, a fourth-generation Letcher County resident and master falconer whose property was included in the original rendering of the prison site, refused to sell his land, causing significant delays for the project. For him, the experience of dealing with the Bureau of Prisons was all too reminiscent of battles his father and grandfather fought against absentee coal companies that wanted to take the same land. “This was, again to me, a flashback of the heyday,” he said.
Today this coalition is re-forming, shifting the debate about rural prison growth and building an opposition rooted in multiracial solidarity among poor communities. Its conviction that better options abound feels all the more urgent for residents still recovering from the summer’s fatal floods. As Dr. Bates put it, how can you organize if you’re living in a tent? “I think those of us who were lucky enough not to be totally destroyed by the flood have to step up and try to stop this prison,” she said.
Those of us outside Letcher County would be wise to follow their lead. As lawmakers debate the federal budget for 2024, there is again an opening for intervention and leverage. Demand of your representatives that Congress rescind the funding for the prison. Insist on more relief and recovery spending in Eastern Kentucky and real solutions for all communities on the front lines of climate disaster and economic abandonment.
Sylvia Ryerson is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Yale University. She previously worked as a radio reporter for WMMT-FM in Letcher County, Ky. Judah Schept is a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and the author of “Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia.”
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