In this joint report from Marguerite Casey Foundation and YES! Media, learn how families in Appalachia are seeking economic stability, as the coal industry shrinks. Many say prisons are not the answer. In one county, advocates helped stop a second prison.
WHITESBURG, Ky. â Big Sandy hides on a big hill. If youâre not looking for the federal prison, youâll 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 canât 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.Â Federal Bureau of Prisons withdrew its plans for LetcherÂ after an outcry from the community â 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 âsaveâ Appalachia as the coal industry collapsed, prisons â many housing incarcerated individuals transferred from distant states â 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 âjobs, jobs, jobs.â 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,Â 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. Thereâs a hardware store, a rural health clinic. The pawn shop 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 âWe Buy Gold.â Itâs unclear how many locals work at the prison. Despite Big Sandyâs promise of local jobs, the largest industry employing people in Inez is still oil and gas extraction, and less than a third of the townâs 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 CorrectionsÂ reached more than 24,000, though there wereÂ not enough bedsÂ for all of them.
Kentucky has theÂ ninth-highest incarceration rateÂ in the nation, so much so that Kentucky radio station WMMT began producing a radio show, âCalls from Home,â in the early 2000s. The program reaches into seven prisons,Â broadcasting messages from inmatesâ families. WMMT is housed within Appalshop, Kentuckyâs media, education and arts center within Letcher County.
A prison is not like a factory. Its massive size doesnât automatically mean jobs, especially not for a local workforce without the specialized training needed to be a corrections officer, or CO â and especially not in a federal prison, which has additional qualifications.Â Work as a federal corrections officerÂ requires a college degree, or three years of work experience.
âFifteen years in, you might be able to have more local folks because the people they start out with would have been trained up, [but] itâs not immediate work; itâs never been,â 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, âthereâs a higher percentage of rural military people than anywhere else.â
Still, from 2014 to 2016, onlyÂ 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 inÂ âUp The Ridge,â AppalshopâsÂ 2006Â documentary about the prison industry,Â 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, âWhy would you build a prison so far up here and so secluded?â
Federal prisons house inmates from all over the country â often, inmates are transferred without warning â 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 âgoing to feel like a vacation!â 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, prisonsÂ canÂ 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 arenât always in place in rural, remote Appalachia. Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are among the states with the largest number ofÂ households without indoor plumbing, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Yet aÂ 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 donât work. They donât 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 theirÂ water was cut off for days.
In Letcher County, lack of basic infrastructure could have stopped the prison project before it began. Then the federalÂ Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Grants program pledged $4.5 millionÂ 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, includingÂ âThe Shawshank Redemption.â
Itâs 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. OneÂ tourism websiteÂ titled their review of the Reformatory âLocked Up & Lovinâ It!â Buying a ticket and wandering inside, people gawk and take pictures, laughing. Someone spray-painted âHELLâ 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: ItâsÂ mostly Black men in the prisons, and itâs mostly White men guarding them. According to a paper on the Kentucky Policy Blog, using data from the Department of Public Advocacy,Â Black Kentuckians are 3.2 times more likely to be in prisonÂ than White people in the state.
InÂ âUp the Ridge,â an unnamedÂ young White man hoping to land a job as a CO acknowledges the racism of the area, but says heâs âcolorblind.â He says he understands âracism probably would come up, but thatâs something that hopefully they would train you for.â
Prison employees receive training on diversity inÂ some states, such as California, but the impact of these trainings is difficult to determine.
Also, prisons may eventually bring jobs to town, butÂ not the kind of desirable jobs that lead to advancement.
âI do not know anyone who dreams of being a prison guard,â Smith toldÂ The Appeal, an online newsletter focused on criminal justice. Itâs difficult work with a culture of closed ranks, similar to the military, and thereâs a high turnover rate among COs. Thereâs even a term coined for the specific job stress and lack of support that guards can experience: âcorrections fatigue.â
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 toÂ post-traumatic stressÂ disorder, a condition for which 34 percent of corrections officers fit the criteria, at 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 theÂ Journal of Family ViolenceÂ 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 thatÂ 33 percent of more than 700 respondents were aware of unreported domestic violenceÂ perpetrated by COs.
InÂ âUp the Ridge,â activist Sister Beth Davies described officers she had met in prison âday after day, becoming more violent and more racist, the hate â 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.â
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. âPeople start working at prisons and donât try to do it at year two,â Appalshopâs Smith says. âThen, itâs just like âŚI canât do this.â âŚ It is a very intense job, and all the things that come with being in that kind of environment for eight to 12 hours.â
Sometimes in Appalachia â including Appalachian Ohio, where I have lived for much of my adult life â 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 â work that changes people. Itâs the inevitability of what Smith calls âshit jobs,â referring to âthis masculinity idea that, âYes, weâre trash, and yet weâre the ones willing to do it â weâre the hard workers.ââ
She likens this legacy to coal jobs. âI have supplied the [country with] energy, and now Iâm proud that now Iâm the one making sure these dangerous people are off the streets âŚ ,â she says of the mindset of some COs and others working within the prison system in Appalachia. â[We have] these labor-intensive, physically exerting, basically dangerous jobs that most people wonât work in, or the people that do work them, itâs mostly immigrant labor. What has been said over and over again [is] White men wonât take these jobs anymore. But here, they will.â
âWhen youâre hungry, honey, youâll take a job,â said Chuck Miller of the Big Stone Gap Housing Authority inÂ âUp the Ridge.â
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: âIf they say theyâll build you an airport, you should take it, you know?â 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 â 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 thatÂ prisons do little to ease the poverty of a rural county, a prison seems more metaphor than strategy, the great ghost of a promise.
âThey were putting an enormous amount of hope in that federal prison project,â DePriest says. âAnd 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 âŚ But it shocked me how much [the prospect of the prison project] affected peopleâs thinking and logic and the hope. It really did, and right now, it still does. Itâs still right there.â
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 didnât really bring tenants to the park, just as it didnât 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 hasÂ remained full of tenants, but he doesnât know why or how to replicate its success. âThose are the same kind of people 30 miles down the road as here,â he says. âThey have the same kind of benefits, and the same kind of problems and attributes as here. And if they can generate 20 companies âŚ 30 miles north of here, we can do the same.â
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 â itâs 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: âIf we could have got a pie factory, then we would have!â 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. âI think the thing with the whole general area â weâre talking about Letcher County, but really the whole area in general â is a loss of hope,â he says. âPeople need something to cling to, something to look forward to tomorrow.â
Perhaps for outlooks to change in Appalachia, the larger countryâs opinion of the region needs to change, too â 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. âIf we could just get basic infrastructure for people that would be great,â Smith says.
DePriest says, âI 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.â
Otherwise, the promise of prisons may be like the promise of mines: largely empty, largely unjust.
Alison Stine wrote this article as part of a joint storytelling project from Marguerite Casey Foundation and YES! Media. This story first appeared in YES! Magazine. 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 herÂ debut novelÂ âThe Grower,â to be published by Mira (HarperCollins) in September 2020. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundationâs publication featuring stories of Americaâs families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. Additional support for YES! Magazineâs Appalachia coverage comes from the One Foundation.Â