A Future in the Balance: The Fight Against the Carceral State in Central Appalachia

by Judah Schept* 


Image: Wallens Ridge State Prison, Big Stone Gap, VA, from itsgoingdown.org.

Three years ago this month, in June 2019, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) withdrew its Record of Decision to build United States Penitentiary Letcher, a maximum security federal prison sited for a former mountaintop removal site in Letcher County, Kentucky. Were it to have been built, USP Letcher would have been the fifth federal prison, and ninth overall, in Eastern Kentucky, part of a sprawling carceral geography that has taken shape – and shaped – Central Appalachia in recent decades, and which I explore in detail in my recent book (Schept 2022). While the work of numerous forces and conditions has resulted in this moment, the prevalence of the federal prisons in particular is due in large part to the efforts of U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, who represents all of Eastern Kentucky, and who has pursued a now decades-long practice of bringing federal prisons to his region as part of a strategy of rural job creation and economic development, despite dubious evidence of success. Indeed, three of the counties to which Rogers brought prisons – Clay, Martin, and McCreary Counties in 1992, 2003, and 2004 – remain three of the poorest counties in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

But as the attempt to bring this process to Letcher County accelerated, it was met with considerable opposition in the form of a coalition of concerned residents and landowners, community organizers, environmental activists, and people in prison. Residents and landowners resisted the BOP’s attempts to purchase land, identifying the agency’s maneuvers as part of a long history of land expropriations in the region. Environmental activists argued about the impacts of the prison on fragile ecosystems and joined prisoners from around the country in demanding answers for the potential public health consequences from nearby mining operations on people who would be incarcerated there. Community organizers intervened in the simplistic arguments from prison boosters about economic development, demanding real investment in the community in the form of “#our444million” – the original price tag of the prison – while disavowing potential jobs premised on the immiseration of other people.  The coalition’s work during the most concentrated years of BOP efforts to site the prison, from 2016 – 2019, severely damaged the credibility of the project. The BOP’s withdrawal of the ROD was an historic victory against the carceral state.

And yet, three years after the historic defeat of USP Letcher, Rogers, with the support of Senator Mitch McConnell, stubbornly insists on the viability of the prison. In its Fiscal Year 2022 Performance Budget submitted to Congress, the Department of Justice proposed the cancellation of over $500 million dollars previously allocated in construction funds to build USP Letcher. What does this mean? It means that three years after the defeat of the prison, half a billion dollars remains allocated for it as Hal Rogers (and McConnell) insist on the righteousness of the project despite the DOJ itself – under both the Trump and Biden Administrations, and due directly to the coalition’s efforts – admitting the prison isn’t necessary (Ruger 2020). To put this another way, Letcher County organizers defeated USP Letcher in part by demanding real investment in their county, pointing to studies that demonstrate the fallacies of prison-based economic development and insisting on a kind of solidarity economy, noting that “Appalachia deserves real economic alternatives that are not built on human suffering” (Ryerson and Schept 2018). Three years later, the congressional representative tasked with bringing federal investment to the region insists on holding the funds in the liminal space created between congressional appropriation and the DOJ’s commitment not to build the prison. Held in the balance, and hijacked in the process, are the very communities Rogers supposedly represents.

Why does Rogers show such dedication to USP Letcher, and more broadly to the prison economy he has helped to build? While it is tempting to attribute both to the tenacity of the ‘prince of pork’ (as the congressman is known), it is important to note that Rogers is one of many actors at various scales of the state turning to prisons and jails as putative solutions to a growing crisis in the region.

Crises, as Stuart Hall and his coauthors have defined them, occur when existing social formations cease to be able to reproduce themselves on the basis of current social and economic relations (Hall et al. 2013; Hall and Massey 2010). Just during the period in which the bulk of my research occurred, between 2011 and 2018, Eastern Kentucky lost 73 percent of its already-dwindling coal jobs; there are now just 4,000 coal jobs in the entire state, the lowest total since the 19th century (Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet 2021). Moreover, the decline of production – due to depleted coal seams, the growth of natural gas, expanding renewable energy markets, the rise of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and environmental regulations – has dramatically impacted the Coal Severance Tax, a fee applied to the gross value of coal extracted, and which historically has generated millions of dollars in revenue for coalfield counties. As the coal industry has departed the region, the “burden of social reproduction”—strategizing, planning, and paying for the very survivability of communities—has been fully offloaded down scale, to cash-strapped counties, community organizations, and households.[1]

Prisons have been deployed most explicitly to try to resolve issues of unemployment. In a telling comparison, there are more than 6,000 corrections jobs in the state, although that number does not include the medical, clerical, and mental health workers employed inside of prisons and jails. In short, prison and jail jobs have overtaken coal jobs in Kentucky by thousands of positions, accelerated no doubt by the federal prisons built in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As one industry publication observed more than twenty years ago, in 1999, in a story headlined “Corrections Replace Coal in Eastern Kentucky,” “In Kentucky’s coal country, prisons have become the cornerstone of an economic renewal meant to offset the decline of coal mining” (Correctional Building News, 1999, quoted in Christie 2001, 136). Three new prisons have opened since then. In addition, rural jails have recently proliferated in Eastern Kentucky, holding significant numbers of state prisoners in exchange for per-diem payments in order to shore up revenue shortages (Norton and Schept 2019). Both the prisons and jails signal an enduring and extensive investment in the stability of communities — 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. Cages of all kinds, then, are utilized to address crises at the points of both production and reproduction, and offer important affective and symbolic recuperation to communities in crisis, which are responding to the shifting ground, quite literally, occurring in their region and look to the prisons and jails in order “to set the stage for ordinary working people to accept extraordinary measures in hope of securing livelihoods” (Gilmore 2007, 131).

There is no doubt that a startling political and economic realignment is under way in the coalfields. Crucially, however, the change is neither complete nor inevitable, nor is it uncontested. First, the carceral political economy doesn’t fill the footprint left by the coal industry’s departure, even as prisons are often positioned as a kind of rural jobs program to replace coal. The jobs that the prisons do provide do not come close to matching the coal industry’s historic employment levels in the state and region. At the height of coal employment in 1949, the industry employed 75,707 people in Kentucky, or more than ten times the record number of prison and jail workers in the state today. Moreover, the coal industry’s dominance of the region’s economy occurred for a century. In addition, prison jobs don’t necessarily go to local residents, particularly within the federal system, which often moves employees within the Bureau of Prisons and has stricter requirements for employment. Despite all of this, there is no doubt that carceral growth has become a dominant development strategy for the region.

Second, that strategy has now suffered a significant defeat. The work of the coalition to impugn the BOP, delay the process, and rechart the terms of the debate destabilized USP Letcher, and the project lost its footing under the weight of both opposition and the newly shifting and unstable terrain of contradictory positions within the carceral state. The coalition had forced the BOP to admit it had erred in both its economic projections for USP Letcher and the stated need for the prison in the face of the declining federal prison population. The coalition was fueled by a capacious vision of environmental justice, grassroots democracy and antiracist class solidarity, and both countered the notion of total support and offered visions of alternative economic and political futures. Crucially, however, the victory against USP Letcher was an example of “when a win isn’t a win,” as one organizer observed. That is, there remains no alternate regional reinvestment strategy for the federal money appropriated to the prison, evidenced by Rogers’ insistence that the money remain allocated. The demands for redirecting #our444million toward other forms of desperately needed community support remains unmet. This starkly reveals how the prison was never intended or structured as a true rural employment program; rather, the rhetoric of “jobs” has long been used to secure consent for a prison-building regime primarily deployed to resolve urban and rural crises of “organized abandonment.” Still, the coalition notched a significant victory against the carceral state. In the process, they confirmed both the centrality of abolition to a vision of just transition and the potency of radical rural organizing.

*Judah Schept is a Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Grounded in the interdisciplinary field of Critical Prison Studies, his work examines the history, political economy, and cultural logics of the carceral state. He is the author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia (New York University Press, 2022) and Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion (New York University Press, 2015). He is also co-editor of The Jail is Everywhere: Fighting the New Geography of Mass Incarceration (Verso Books, 2023). His writing can also be found in journals such as Radical Criminology, Theoretical Criminology, Punishment and Society, Social Justice, Crime, Media, Culture, and the Boston Review. Judah serves as the book review editor for Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order. He has been active with numerous organizations and campaigns centered on decarceration, abolition, and other fights for social justice. He holds a PhD from Indiana University and a BA from Vassar College.

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[1] I use “burden” here deliberately, invoking both Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Jessie Wilkerson. Gilmore argues, “Organized abandonment—the removal of jobs, factories, benefits, schools, you name it—sums up to a general burden that households and communities bear,” reminding us of who pays for capital’s quest for profit and the state’s reorganization. Wilkerson’s understanding of the “burden of social reproduction” expertly points us at once to the gendered histories of care work in the coalfields and beyond as well as the ways that such work, such as the creation of rural health clinics in eastern Kentucky, connected in certain conjunctures to antipoverty organizing and militant labor insurrections. See Wilkerson 2019, 145.


Christie, Nils. 2001/1993. Crime Control as Industry: Toward Gulags, Western Style. New York: Routledge.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Crisis, Surplus and Opposition in Globalizing California. Los Angeles and Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 2013/1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. 35th anniversary edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, Stuart, and Doreen Massey. 2010. “Interpreting the Crisis.” Soundings 44(Spring):57–71.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. 2021. “Kentucky Quarterly Coal Report.” Available at: https://eec.ky.gov/Energy/News-Publications/Pages/Coal-Facts.aspx

Norton, Jack and Judah Schept. 2019. “Keeping the Lights On: Incarcerating the Bluegrass State.” Vera Institute of Justice, March 4th. Available at: https://www.vera.org/in-our-backyards-stories/keeping-the-lights-on

Ruger, Todd. 2020. “Powerful appropriator battles Justice over prison in Kentucky.” Roll Call, March 11. Available at: https://rollcall.com/2020/03/11/powerful-appropriator-battles-justice-over-prison-in-kentucky/

Ryerson, Sylvia and Judah Schept. “Building Prisons in Appalachia: The Region Deserves Better.” Boston Review, April 28th. Available at: https://bostonreview.net/articles/prisons-are-not-future-appalachia-deserves/

Schept, Judah. 2022. Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia. New York: New York University Press

Wilkerson, Jessica. 2019. To Live Here You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. Champaign: University of Illinois Press

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