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Prison-Industrial Complex

The Phantom Promise: How Appalachia Was Sold on Prisons as an Economic Lifeline



Photo: Thinkstock

As the coal industry declines, rural communities are seeking new economic stability—but prisons may not be the answer.

Big Sandy hides on a big hill. If you’re not looking for the federal prison, you’ll miss it easily. At first, all that can be seen above the soaring Kentucky cliffs, jagged granite dotted with green scruff, are lights. They look like the lights for a high school football field, or maybe a mall. Then the guard towers loom into view. You can’t see the razor wire from the road.

Construction on U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy finished in 2002, one of three federal prisons built in eastern Kentucky since 1992. Plans for another federal prison, in rural Letcher County, Kentucky, appear to have fallen through; in June, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons withdrew its plans for Letcher after an outcry from the community—and a federal lawsuit expressing concern both over the environmental issues of building the prison on a former coal mine site, and the fact that the public had not been able to weigh in.

In the scramble to “save” Appalachia as the coal industry collapsed, prisons—many housing incarcerated individuals transferred from distant states—have been presented as an antidote to the joblessness and poverty plaguing parts of the region, especially the more isolated rural areas. Prisons are big projects with hefty price tags, and they bring pledges of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But more often, prisons do not deliver promised local employment, at least not initially, and carry with them a host of other issues.

Inez, Kentucky, the town nearest Big Sandy, has a population of less than 900. Multiple storefronts on East Main Street are empty, one with large pane windows covered in flaking white paint. There’s a hardware store, a rural health clinic. The pawnshop at the edge of town has a row of ATVs parked out front, near a stack of tires and a few old wagon wheels. A sign says “We Buy Gold.” It’s unclear how many locals work at the prison. Despite Big Sandy’s promise of local jobs, the largest industry employing people in Inez is still oil and gas extraction, and less than a third of the town’s total population is employed anyplace at all.

Kentucky has 12 state prisons, plus five federal prisons. The Virginia state prison in Big Stone Gap is just across the state line. In March 2019, the number of people under the jurisdiction of the Kentucky Department of Corrections reached more than 24,000, though there were not enough beds for all of them.

Kentucky has the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, so much so that Kentucky radio station WMMT began producing a radio show, “Calls from Home,” in the early 2000s. The program reaches into seven prisons, broadcasting messages from inmates’ families. WMMT is housed within Appalshop, Kentucky’s media, education and arts center within Letcher County.

A prison is not like a factory. Its massive size doesn’t automatically mean jobs, especially not for a local workforce without the specialized training needed to be a corrections officer, or CO—and especially not in a federal prison, which has additional qualifications. Work as a federal corrections officer requires a college degree, or three years of work experience.

“Fifteen years in, you might be able to have more local folks because the people they start out with would have been trained up, [but] it’s not immediate work; it’s never been,” says Ada Smith of Appalshop and the Letcher Governance Project, a group that opposed the prison in Letcher County. People with military experience may have a greater chance of prison employment, says Smith, whose cousin works as a CO. When hiring for federal prison COs, the federal government looks for military experience, and as Smith says, “there’s a higher percentage of rural military people than anywhere else.”

Still, from 2014 to 2016, only 1.8 percent of Kentuckians in urban areas worked in the justice, order, and safety fields, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy; and just 2.4 percent of Kentuckians in rural areas overall worked in the fields.

Appalachian prisons have overwhelmingly been built in remote places, a fact that family members of incarcerated individuals lament in Up The Ridge, Appalshop’s 2006 documentary about the prison industry, which focuses on the then-new Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Lisa Richardson, traveling to Virginia from Connecticut to see an incarcerated loved one, asked, “Why would you build a prison so far up here and so secluded?”

Federal prisons house inmates from all over the country—often, inmates are transferred without warning—requiring family to make these costly and difficult journeys to visit their loved ones, if they can visit at all.

Some local government officials in McCreary County, Kentucky, tried to pitch the federal prison there as a generator of additional tourism dollars from families visiting incarcerated loved ones. The thought was that families would stay at hotels, eat in restaurants and take part in local recreational activities, including waterskiing. Smith characterized the pitch from officials, who suggested that traveling to the region for visitation as “going to feel like a vacation!” That did not happen, and the prison tourism dollars never came at the scale officials had hoped.

Near the Virginia state line, churches and other volunteer groups run ride-share programs where families are picked up, driven all night, fed breakfast and taken to prisons for visitation. Families spend the night locally, but usually at inexpensive motels, where they receive a discount.

Even without many local jobs or tourism dollars, prisons can potentially contribute to a rural community in the form of infrastructure. Large prisons need a lot of water. They need roads and sewage systems. These structures aren’t always in place in rural, remote Appalachia. Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are among the states with the largest number of households without indoor plumbing, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Yet a water crisis has persisted in Martin County, home of Big Sandy, for decades. In 2000, the collapse of a sediment pond, meant to hold the waste from a now-closed coal extractor company, turned several rivers black. The waste, which contained arsenic, lead and mercury, among other toxins, poisoned the county water supply.

That was almost 20 years ago, and Martin County residents still struggle to obtain clean, safe water. Pipes don’t work. They don’t have pressure; the water that eventually drips out of them is sometimes neon blue and smells of diesel. Water bills have skyrocketed, and the Martin County Water District in 2018 conducted shut-offs to conserve water, with some residents reporting their water was cut off for days.

In Letcher County, lack of basic infrastructure could have stopped the prison project before it began. Then the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Grants program pledged $4.5 million for the building of a sewage plant near the rural site, and to install the needed 9.5 miles of water lines. These basic public works projects were imperative for a prison, but they were also sorely needed by the community at large. The prison project promised water and sewer service to 100 nearby households. The future of those services is uncertain now. 

On the small main street in Inez, Big Sandy feels distant, a phantom over the shoulder of the town, miles and a mountain away. But prisons cast a long shadow over the communities in which they rest.

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, my hometown a few hours north of Kentucky, was closed in 1990 as a result of a lawsuit over inhumane conditions and overcrowding. It was quickly replaced by a different, mixed-security state prison for men. But the Reformatory stayed standing. It was used for music videos and movies, including The Shawshank Redemption.

It’s strange to grow up in a small, rural town where one of the major industries, after the Westinghouse and General Motors factories closed, is prison tourism. One tourism website titled their review of the Reformatory “Locked Up & Lovin’ It!” Buying a ticket and wandering inside, people gawk and take pictures, laughing. Someone spray-painted “HELL” in the administration area. Paint flakes from the walls. The cell blocks are six tiers high, narrow as kennels and covered in rust. Solitary confinement looks scarier than any fiction that might have been filmed there: near-complete darkness in the damp, low-ceilinged belly of the basement.

Some of the community outcry against prisons is related to racial injustice: It’s mostly Black men in the prisons and it’s mostly white men guarding them. According to a paper on the Kentucky Policy Blog, using data from the Department of Public Advocacy, Black Kentuckians are 3.2 times more likely to be in prison than white people in the state.

In Up the Ridge, an unnamed young white man hoping to land a job as a CO acknowledges the racism of the area, but says he’s “colorblind.” He says he understands “racism probably would come up, but that’s something that hopefully they would train you for.”

Prison employees receive training on diversity in some states, such as California, but the impact of these trainings is difficult to determine.

Also, prisons may eventually bring jobs to town, but not the kind of desirable jobs that lead to advancement.

“I do not know anyone who dreams of being a prison guard,” Smith told The Appeal, an online newsletter focused on criminal justice. It’s difficult work with a culture of closed ranks, similar to the military, and there’s a high turnover rate among COs. There’s even a term coined for the specific job stress and lack of support that guards can experience: “corrections fatigue.”

As with any job, COs can bring the stress and anxiety of work home. But the stress of being a prison guard includes dealing with physical violence and emotional distress, along with the low-level anxiety of being constantly alert to potential danger. Hypervigilance can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition for which 34 percent of corrections officers fit the criteria, a rate even higher than that of military veterans.

The connection between police officers and domestic violence is widely known, but prison guards have been less studied, which a 2012 paper in the Journal of Family Violence theorizes may be because COs do less visible work than public police officers. The work and stress of prison guards is hidden away in restricted buildings, behind barbed-wire fences and away in the hills. Still, the data revealed that 33 percent of more than 700 respondents were aware of unreported domestic violence perpetrated by COs.

In Up the Ridge, activist Sister Beth Davies described officers she had met in prison “day after day, becoming more violent and more racist, the hate—and so the domestic violence rate has gone up. The divorce rate. The drug and alcohol problems. It compounded so many of the social issues here.”

In 2019, two inmates at Big Sandy were convicted of assaulting another inmate with a weapon. Two other inmates pleaded guilty the month before for attempted murder of another incarcerated person. A prison staff member was burned with scalding water thrown by an inmate. In 2009, a prisoner at Big Sandy attacked a fellow inmate with a homemade ice pick before strangling him to death.

That leads to a high rate of burnout and turn-over even after a short period of employment. “People start working at prisons and don’t try to do it at year two,” Appalshop’s Smith says. “Then it’s just like …I can’t do this.’ … It is a very intense job, and all the things that come with being in that kind of environment for eight to 12 hours.”

Sometimes in Appalachia—including Appalachian Ohio, where I have lived for much of my adult life—there is a sense that this is all we are good for, and this is our lot in life. That sense can lead to the belief that we are destined to suck it up and do the difficult, unwanted work—work that changes people. It’s the inevitability of what Smith calls “shit jobs,” referring to “this masculinity idea that, ‘Yes, we’re trash, and yet we’re the ones willing to do it—we’re the hard workers.’”

She likens this legacy to coal jobs. “I have supplied the [country with] energy and now I’m proud that now I’m the one making sure these dangerous people are off the streets … ,” she says of the mindset of some COs and others working within the prison system in Appalachia. “[We have] these labor-intensive, physically exerting, basically dangerous jobs that most people won’t work in, or the people that do work them, it’s mostly immigrant labor. What has been said over and over again [is] White men won’t take these jobs anymore. But here they will.”

“When you’re hungry, honey, you’ll take a job,” said Chuck Miller of the Big Stone Gap Housing Authority in Up the Ridge.

The Appalachian willingness to work could translate to a host of other jobs, such as manufacturing in the factories currently sitting empty, or in health care, for which the region has a dire need. Joe DePriest, president of the Letcher County Chamber of Commerce, the county where he was born, says there is a Keebler factory, call centers and mattress factories that are still open in Letcher County, home of the stalled prison project.

In September, Letcher County received a $3.5 million grant to build a sports resort, including a competitive shooting range. The county is also being considered for an airport project, which DePriest thinks would help with the accessibility of the area for potential developers: “If they say they’ll build you an airport, you should take it, you know?” Hemp and CBD oil extraction continue to flourish, sometimes on farms on reclaimed mine land.

Another much-needed industry in the region with the potential to bring jobs to Appalachia is substance abuse rehabilitation—the anti-prison, if you will. With the possible exception of rehab facilities, none of these industries have the big, sweeping allure of a federal prison. But when statistics show that prisons do little to ease the poverty of a rural county, a prison seems more metaphor than strategy, the great ghost of a promise.

“They were putting an enormous amount of hope in that federal prison project,” DePriest says. “And nobody, even the smallest guy on the street, or the biggest guy there is, nobody presented the federal prison as a cure-all for Letcher County. Nobody looked at it that way, but everybody looked at it as a shot in the arm, or something that could help … But it shocked me how much [the prospect of the prison project] affected people’s thinking and logic and the hope. It really did, and right now it still does. It’s still right there.” 

Up on the hill past the turnoff for Big Sandy prison is an office park. It winds through wild, grassy acres beside the prison. Most of the buildings sit empty, abandoned or never filled, weeds pushing through the parking lots. The prison didn’t really bring tenants to the park, just as it didn’t bring family tourists to the town.

Letcher County has an industrial park too, but because it was populated with companies primarily related to the oil and gas industry, most of those jobs were lost in the economic downturn 10 years ago. DePriest says a neighboring office park has remained full of tenants, but he doesn’t know why or how to replicate its success. “Those are the same kind of people 30 miles down the road as here,” he says. “They have the same kind of benefits, and the same kind of problems and attributes as here. And if they can generate 20 companies … 30 miles north of here, we can do the same.”

It is no coincidence that Appalachia is considered a prime place for prisons, as it was for coal, fracking and other industries that often exploit both land and people—it’s not simply a question of the terrain, but of industries no one else wants. Smith says that local officials have told her as much about the undesirability of the region, and how it is still passed over for more positive development: “If we could have got a pie factory, then we would have!” she recalls a member of the local planning commission saying. DePriest agrees that the abundance of extractive, exploitative industries in the region is no accident. “I think the thing with the whole general area—we’re talking about Letcher County, but really the whole area in general—is a loss of hope,” he says. “People need something to cling to, something to look forward to tomorrow.”

Perhaps for outlooks to change in Appalachia, the larger country’s opinion of the region needs to change, too—to view the region not only as a place to build an industry, but as a place to build a life. Smith says that highlights the importance of scaling back projects in the region to address the fundamentals. Clean water and repaired roads might not be as exciting as a prison, but the need for these services is dire and still unmet in some rural places. “If we could just get basic infrastructure for people that would be great,” Smith says.

DePriest says, “I think what we need to do, the leaders of the community, however we can, whatever needs to be done, is re-encourage people. To get their hope back.”

Otherwise, the promise of prisons may be like the promise of mines: largely empty, largely unjust.

This story was reported with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which supports and amplifies stories of low-income families and the actions that make change possible. It was originally published by YES! Magazine.

Additional support for YES! Magazine’s Appalachia coverage comes from the One Foundation. 

Alison Stine is a writer and editor who lives in southeastern Ohio. She is a contributing editor for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the author of several books, including her debut novel The Growerto be published by Mira (HarperCollins) in September 2020.

Prison-Industrial Complex

Profiting Off Prisoners: State Inmates Mean Big Bucks for Local Jails



County jails make money from holding prisoners under state jurisdiction. Photo: Thinkstock

Rural jails in Kentucky are increasingly relying on income derived from payments for holding state prisoners in county facilities, according to a new report by a think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform.

To address overcrowding, states make payments to counties to hold convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. States save money, and counties get an extra influx of cash.

In rural Kentucky, the report’s authors warn,  the dynamic speaks to a perception that incarceration is a tool for economic development. The reliance on income from state prisoners is particularly stark in cash-strapped counties suffering from a decline in another major form of revenue, the coal excise tax.

“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that relies so heavily on local jails to hold people who have been sentenced to prison,” said Jasmine Heiss, outreach director at the Vera Institute of Justice, which authored the report. “This has deepened political and social alignment around prison,” she said. “In the coal fields, the political and social alignment has the additional context of the decline of the coal industry and needing to turn to another industry or source of revenue.”

Unsustainable Growth

Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the nation. As of February, 2019, Kentucky had more than 23,000 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 prison beds available, the report said. The state’s solution to overcrowding is to pay “per diem” fees to county jails to house excess inmates. The state pays eligible county jails $31.34 per inmate per day for food and medical expenses, roughly half of what the state spends to house per inmate in a state prison.

Among all states, Kentucky houses the second highest percentage of state inmates in county jails, at 49 percent.

According to the report, the number of people held in local jails for the state increased by 39 percent between 2000 and 2018. West Virginia falls seventh, at 18 percent. Ohio does not hold state inmates in county jails.

Jack Norton, one of the report’s co-authors, said that despite policies aimed at reducing Kentucky’s prison population, incarceration continues to grow at an “alarming” rate. “If the incarceration rates continue to rise in Kentucky at the same rate is has since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years,” Norton said.

Despite the mathematical impossibility of continued growth, the report said many county officials, particularly in rural counties, consider increasing jail capacity a solution to budget woes.

Knox County, in southeast Kentucky, has plans to build a new 350-bed jail. The report notes the current Knox County jail has space for 36 inmates but regularly holds 100 people.

“The state prison system is pushing people down to the county jail level, which is incentivizing counties in Kentucky to build bigger jails in order to take advantage of the per diem payments that the state DOC gives to county jails,” Norton said.

Coal Cuts

Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, has seen its population decrease, but its incarcerated population has risen by 1,500 percent since 1978. A lot of that increase, the report says, is from prisoners sentenced in the state system. A Harlan County official told the Vera Institute nearly two-thirds of the county jail budget, or $1.8 million, comes from state payments for housing inmates.

Judah Schept, Norton’s co-author and a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the per diem payments for holding state inmates were particularly important in the state’s eastern coal fields, where budgets once boosted by coal severance taxes were flagging.

“The money that the state pays for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets,” the report said.

Coal production began to decline decades ago, but around 2011, cheap natural gas caused a steep decline in coal production in eastern Kentucky. The decline in coal production meant drastic cuts to many local budgets, which have long relied on the tax on mined coal that the state distributes to mining counties.

Harlan County, a traditional coal county, saw its severance tax payments drop from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016, according to the report.

Depending on Growth

The report’s authors urged county officials to be wary of relying too heavily on payments for housing state prisoners. If the state’s criminal justice policies change and the prison population begins to decline, county jails could be left footing the bill for unnecessarily large jails, even as the loss of per-diem revenue causes further hardship to local budgets.

“Rather than pursue policies that would address [over-incarceration] in some way, that would reduce the number of people behind bars,” said Heiss, “this quiet jail expansion around the state enables this limiting of the political and moral imagination around over-incarceration. The only solution that is being pursued is to provide more and more beds.”

As the federal government and states across the country pass legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has continued to rise. Legislation has been introduced in Frankfort that could reduce the number of people jailed before trial, potentially reducing the the state’s reliance on counties for bed space. Previous versions of the bill have been introduced but not passed.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Video Call Blues in the Knox County Jail



From the experience of a father’s forgiveness expressed with the pat of a hand, to a mother fixing your hair before the homecoming dance, to a brother holding you back from a schoolyard fight, our relationships with others are comprised of our shared sensory experiences. These formative life moments consist of presence; that irreplaceable feeling of having someone you love in the room with you, looking you in the eyes.

Incarceration removes individuals from their loved oneslives and isolates them from the world they once knew. Visitation policies have changed over the decades. From the once relatively lax (and free) table visitations of earlier in the 20th century, the act has been moved behind Plexiglas, on landlines, and recently been overtaken by a slightly more pixelated equivalent of Skype, to the tune of six dollars for a half hour, limited to twice a week. Thats in Knox County, Tennessee: where, in order to cut a profit off video software, Knox County contracted with Securus Technologies to end all in-person visits in the county jail.

In largely cash-poor Central Appalachian communities, prisons, local government and industry have combined forces to find ways to profit by emptying the coffers of county commissions. In Letcher County, $444 million went  to  the construction of a new prison on the site of an old strip mine. The so-called Gulag Archipelago, a network of high-security prisons, is scattered across Appalachia in this way, making use of open space, desperate and cash-poor local government, and an abundance of privately traded land. The prison-industrial complex here extends deep into carceral life, from catering of food (often Aramark) to the production of cheap fabrics and electrical products, road maintenance, and even cheese. Sometimes they profit from certain immigration policies; Sheriff J. J. Jones, who espoused the Securus contract, has made overtures to collaborate with ICE in the past, saying he is eager to stack (immigrants) like cordwood.

In Knoxville, Nathan Light, originally of Memphis, spent his childhood with an incarcerated father. His father passed away during that time, and so Nathans last memories with his father are of seeing him through prison Plexiglas, wishing they could hold one another, even touch hands.

I didnt get a last hug,” Light said of his father, who was a preacher before his incarceration. The last time I saw him it was through the bulletproof glass of a visitation booth. The last time I heard his voice was through a two way phone.”

Nathan was horrified to hear about the new visitation developments in Knox County. How can our government be so callous? How can they justify this needless pain?he said at a rally in Knoxville last month, his words quiet but emphatic. Nothing can replace seeing someone in front of you with your own eyes, even from behind bulletproof glass.

Had Nathan grown up in Knox County in 2017, the process of maintaining communication with his father would look a lot more complicated. First, he would have had to sign up for an account with Securus. He and his father would have had to make it work during one of the two preset times per week he was available. Nathan would have a choice: to stay home and pay, or to drive to the crowded kiosks at the jail and speak with his father, on video, from within the same building, for free. If Nathans bandwidth is low at home – if, for instance, he lives in a rural area or cannot afford high-speed internet – the video might cut out.  There are no refunds, no call-backs. If the video cuts out fifteen minutes in, you still pay $6. If Nathan or his father are late to the pre-assigned visit, there is no overtime. The jails website warns call participants not to make large movements, as this may cause the video to lag. Under Sheriff Jonesdirection, Securus also sells tablets to inmates for $425 each, which they must purchase from commissary. No social media apps are allowed, but they can use them to book haircuts.

East Tennessee jails have said that video visitation is a “win-win,” making money for poor counties, reducing trade in illicit materials, and allowing for increased surveillance of inmates. In Hamblen County, Tennessee, where Securus contracted before Knox County, a 2011 article quotes Lt. Craig Cloer: “Liability’s down, contraband is in control, and we don’t have to fix windows anymore.” Furthermore, local deputies can turn off the inmates’ camera if they ask for a “private-part peek,” as they term it.

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Tennessee incarcerates 740 out of every 100,000 people, well above the international average of 151 per 100,000. The majority of these people, as in everywhere in the United States, are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. In the county jails, many incarcerated people are not necessarily convicted; they are simply too poor to pay bail, and thus awaiting trial behind bars.  

According to the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Tennessee-based research and advocacy organization, the end of in-person visits does not mean the end of infractions.  Contraband still makes the rounds behind bars. Recidivism does not decrease; in fact, it increases. Face to Face Knoxville, a project of the collective, is currently working to overturn the Knox County rules.

Knox is not the first county to make this bargain, and it wont be the last; neither are its people the first to fight back. Securusvictory is no mandate: in some counties, in-person visits have been reinstated, and co-exist with video calls.

In Austin, Texas this past fall, lawmakers mandated that each inmate receive two twenty-minute in-person visits per week. In the time that video-only visits were instated, infractions shot up, and the money counties made didnt seem to make up for the trouble.  Ultimately, though, what was most disturbing were not the economic implications of the policy, but the personal.

Nathan Light did not even try to offer facts and figures for his case. His knowledge is not based in years of pouring over the law; its based in the heart. All I ask today is that we have some compassion,said Nathan, as the January chill raised goosebumps on the activists gathered outside the City-County Building. Not just for the prisoners, but for their families and children as well, because I know first hand that all they want, all they need to keep going, is a little more than just Facetime.With that he popped his collar up against the bitter wind and exited the podium.

Katie Myers (@stopitkatie) is a writer, community organizer, and arts educator residing in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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