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

As the coal industry declines, rural communities are seeking new economic stability—but prisons may not be the answer.
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A guard tower at the United States Penitentiary, Big Sandy, stands as a sentinel along Kentucky Route 3 in Martin County.

All photos by Roger May

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 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 “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.

Troy Wiley, 39, of Martin County, Kentucky works at the Inez Pawn Shop. Wiley lost half of a foot in a sawmill accident, has been working at the pawn shop owned by Joe Evans for three years. "You can't live the American Dream in Martin County," he said. Good-paying jobs have become scarce since the decline of the coal industry.

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% 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% of Kentuckians in rural areas overall worked in the fields.

The U.S. Penitentiary, Big Sandy, in Martin County, Kentucky, houses inmates from around the country. The prison population comprises mostly people of color, while most corrections officers tend to be White.

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.

Downtown Inez, Kentucky, the county seat of Martin County. The Big Sandy federal penitentiary opened outside town in 2002, but the area remains economically depressed.

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. 

A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands along the Warfield Walking Trail, in Martin County, Kentucky. The traditional symbol of welcome is on the edge of the town of Inez, an economically depressed community that is home to a federal prison.

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.”

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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% 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 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% 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.”

The Martin County Youth Soccer Complex in Inez, Kentucky.

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.

United Baptist Church of Old Zion Association in Big Elk, Martin County, Kentucky. The stairs lead to the creek, where members gather for baptisms when water levels are higher.

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.” 

Abandoned horses graze empty fields at the Eastern Kentucky Business Park in Martin County, Kentucky, less than a mile from the federal prison. Prisons are often promoted as engines of job creation for rural communities, but the jobs often aren’t filled by locals.

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.”

A Dollar General store in Warfield, Martin County, Kentucky. The area’s economy suffers from the collapse of the coal industry, and the arrival of a federal prison hasn’t significantly changed that.

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. 

 

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