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The Carceral Conjuncture in Central Appalachia


Judah Schept (@judahschept) is Associate Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia.

This post is part of a symposium on the LPE of Rural America.


A concentration of jail and prison expansion and construction activity in Eastern Kentucky has resulted in what might sound like a startling claim: the region is a center of gravity in the fight over the future of the carceral state. Of the 16 prisons in Central Appalachia, eight are in Eastern Kentucky. This includes the re-opening of a decommissioned private prison in 2020 in the former coal company town of Wheelwright, KY, as well as the resumption this past fall of an almost two-decade-long attempt to build a federal prison and an adjoining federal prison camp in Letcher County, about 30 miles south of Wheelwright. If the project goes ahead, that would be the fourth federal prison built in Eastern Kentucky since 1992. Just months later, the state of Kentucky announced the addition of almost 1000 new beds to the Little Sandy Correctional Complex, about 2 hours north of Wheelwright, also in the coalfields.

In addition to the expansion of federal and state prisons, numerous county jails across Kentucky are also growing, part of what keen observers of incarceration trends have called “a quiet jail boom” taking place in the United States. Jails around the country, particularly in struggling rural communities, increasingly look to state Departments of Correction and federal agencies like ICE for a steady supply of prisoners and immigrant detainees, as the per diem payments can help to “keep the lights on.” In addition, and perhaps because of the added capacity, rural jail populations are rising, recently surpassing the number of people incarcerated in urban jails.

How should we understand the political and economic forces that are driving this carceral boom? As I discuss in the following post, and document at greater length in my new book, multiple crises have converged in Eastern Kentucky to produce a historical moment – a conjuncture – in which prisons and jails serve as putative solutions.

From Coal To Cages

Perhaps most obviously, Kentucky, even more than most other states, has manufactured a crisis of incarceration. If it were its own country, Kentucky would have the seventh highest rate of incarceration in the world. Although the state passed sentencing reform in 2011, whatever incremental progress the legislation may have generated was swiftly counteracted: in the past ten years, the General Assembly has passed 59 bills enhancing penalties or increasing sentences, compared to just ten bills aimed at reducing incarceration or criminalization. As a result, the state prison population, comprising more than 24,000 prisoners, is larger today than it was in 2011. But with just over 12,000 state prison beds, the state incarcerates close to half of state prisoners in county jails. This arrangement, which incentivizes county carceral expansion, points to the second crisis for which jails and prisons are increasingly offered as a solution in Eastern Kentucky.

Coal mining, including both employment and production, has declined dramatically in recent decades, and precipitously so in the past ten years. With fewer than 4,000 mining jobs in the state, close to half of which are in western Kentucky, coal jobs are at their lowest total since the 1890s. Just during the period in which most of my research occurred, between 2011 and 2018, Eastern Kentucky lost 73 percent of its already-dwindling coal jobs. In addition to employment, coal production’s steep decline has hurt regional revenue streams because of the loss of receipts from the coal severance tax, a once-reliable source of millions of dollars for coalfield communities.

In contrast, there are more than 6,500 correctional officer jobs in the state. Prisons are explicitly marketed as a kind of rural jobs program, with impassioned if disingenuous claims of their ability to stimulate economic development. The evidence, in fact, clearly suggests that in economically distressed areas both in the country and region, prisons can further impede development. Nevertheless, the per-diem payments rural jails receive for housing state prisoners offset some of the impact of the decline in tax revenue, and prisons have also become the cornerstone of county applications for grant funding for various infrastructure projects, where funding is contingent upon evidence of some kind of economic development project. In some cases, counties were only able to update wastewater treatment facilities or extend water lines to more remote areas because of the promise or presence of a prison.

These changes have impacts beyond the promised jobs, paved roads, and water line extensions. In addition, prison boosters argue that the prisons will also stimulate surrounding business development, stabilize rural health care, and increase school enrollments. Moreover, in multiple counties with prisons or anticipating prison construction, boards of education have developed curricula and degrees in criminal justice and built out educational spaces like gun ranges and mock courtrooms to train what they view as the next generation of workers for the region. In other words, prison construction and expansion portend a political economic reorganization – and a cultural realignment – around criminal justice.

The implications of such a realignment are thoroughly racialized. While much of Appalachia is far more multiracial than dominant representations would suggest, the counties in Eastern Kentucky home to prisons are overwhelmingly white. We might understand such profound changes as promising to deputize and deploy 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.

The dense concentration of facilities in Eastern Kentucky, as well as the concrete ways they are woven into responses to crises of both work and social reproduction should caution us against analyses overly reliant on either punishment policy or what Stuart Hall calls “low flying economism.” Yet crucially, the force of this momentum is not inexorable, nor is its ideological grip stable.

Resistance and Retrenchment

For the past eight years, a coalition of organizers, landowners, national environmental activists, attorneys, and people in prison have successfully fought the effort of the Bureau of Prisons to build what would be the latest federal prison in the region, in Letcher County. By attacking the credibility of claims for the prison’s necessity and economic impact and launching legal challenges during the environmental review process, the coalition was able to defeat plans for United States Penitentiary Letcher in 2019. This was a historic victory. Never before had a prison proposal passed through the environmental process required under the National Environmental Protection Act and into the construction phase, only to have the Bureau withdraw its Record of Decision under threat of lawsuit and after years of the torrid campaign against it.

And yet, the proposal was not dead. Just two months after catastrophic floods killed more than forty people in Eastern Kentucky in the summer of 2022, the Bureau of Prisons announced the resumption of its efforts to build a prison in Letcher County, in the heart of the flood zone.

Perhaps surprisingly to people outside the region, the floods and the prisons share some instructive genealogical strands. Mountaintop removal, the violent extraction process that uses thousands of pounds of explosives to decapitate mountains in order to access coal, has created tens of thousands of acres of flat land where peaks once stood, and where developers have envisioned and planned everything from houses to airports to business parks to prisons; several prisons in Eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia are built on former removal sites. The land intended for USP Letcher, and where the Bureau of Prisons may try to construct the new prison, is one such site.

Moreover, in its ruthless efficiency, mountaintop removal also has contributed greatly to unemployment. One miner working a removal site can extract as much coal as 22 miners working underground. And, finally, this process uproots trees and plants and removes topsoil, pushing all of this “overburden,” as the industry refers to it, down off the mountain and often into streams, destroying natural water catchment systems in the process. In other words, mountaintop removal has created the conditions of possibility for mountains to become prisons, once and would be miners to becomes guards, and heavy rains to become floods.

The tenacity of Rogers and the local power bloc to insist on a defeated and disingenuous development strategy is matched only by their impudence to do so two months after the deadly floods. The cost to build the prison, estimated at over $500 million, would make it the most expensive federal prison in the history of the United States, an expense dwarfing that allocated to relief and reconstruction efforts. Thankfully, the region’s century-long history of social movement organizing – for unions, welfare rights, full employment, and against strip mining – has unfolded into the present carceral conjuncture. The coalition that defeated the prison in 2019 is re-forming to fight the next iteration of the prison proposal and demand the future that Eastern Kentuckians deserve.