Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia
(NYU Press, 2022)
A crumbling strip of asphalt winds through the craggy countryside of eastern Kentucky, striated with power lines sagging in every direction. Wobbly pavement markings and errant skidmarks vanish at a hairpin bend buffered by low guard rails framing a rolling, sparsely tree-spotted expanse of hills. On one side of this road stands a roughly chiseled open coal seam, marking the remnants of a former mine. On the other, a bowed chain link fence capped in razor-wire announces the outer periphery of Otter Creek Correctional Facility. This remarkable image by photographer Jill Frank adorns the jacket of prison scholar Judah Schept’s Coal, Cages, Crisis (New York: NYU Press, 2022), confronting the reader with the book’s central preoccupations. The looming cliff of the abandoned mine represents the depressed extraction industry around which a nearly single-resource economy was built through Appalachia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The prison wall, puny by contrast, indicates the region’s latter-day embrace of carceral construction as an economic stimulus amid the collapse of its extraction industry. It is, at best, a stopgap measure to stem the worst symptoms of protracted crisis. Schept’s remarkable book takes assiduous aim at conventional wisdom—beginning with the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Coal, Cages, Crisis is the hard-won product of Schept’s decade-long immersion in the landscape of eastern Kentucky, where he has taught at Eastern Kentucky University and undertaken activist scholarship against prisons since 2011. Though not originally from the region, Schept is persistently attentive to combating longstanding stereotypes which flatten Appalachia and its people into caricatures—including the work of self-proclaimed natives like Hillbilly Elegy author-turned-firebrand-politician J.D. Vance, for whom Schept has some choice words. Thanks to years of fieldwork and close coordination with locals, Schept is able to offer a richly evocative portrait of the geographical landscape matched by a textured treatment of local social life, highlighting a number of local people long opposed to the ravages of strip mining, wanton pollution, and the turn toward an economy based on human caging.
Given that Appalachia has, in the words of one informant, been designated “a place for trash” to be kept out of sight of the rest of society, Schept endeavors, with the aid of photographer Frank, to render this world visible. To do this, Schept and Frank defied daunting regulations that keep prisons and waste disposal facilities out of sight by violating local statutes against trespassing and photographing controversial infrastructure and dump sites. Coal, Cages, Crisis is not simply a thorough political-economic account of how prison-based economies took root in a region of the US often omitted from the discourse around mass incarceration. It is also a laudable practical exercise in seeing what is meant to be obscured from public view.
What sets Appalachia apart from other rural prison-building projects is the wreckage that has already been wrought on the people and landscape by coal mining, in the form of deforestation, water pollution, and air pollution. Mountaintop removal coal mining has deforested 1.4 million acres of Appalachian forest, and ecologists estimate that the total footprint of coal mining extends seven to eight times the size of the actual mining site. Coal mining is one of the most devastating forms of habitat fragmentation and a serious threat to global biodiversity. Besides contributing to habitat loss, mountaintop removal’s hazardous chemical byproducts affect many species living downstream of coal mining operations, particularly birds, fish, and salamanders which represent important aquatic-terrestrial trophic linkages. These chemical byproducts also cause public health disasters, in the form of black lung disease, cancer clusters, and dangerous drinking water.
Even more troublesome than the immediate and local effects of coal mining, however, are the long-term effects of climate change. Appalachians’ recent experience of flooding and the extreme heat and drought predicted in future years are likely to hit these communities especially hard, because of the heightened likelihood of loss of life for impoverished and poorly maintained regions of the country.
Rather than recapitulating here Schept’s findings and conclusions, we are interested in how he goes about arriving at them. Our interest in the book’s methodology is due in part to our own similar scholarly work, which deals with understanding the social significance of individual sites of incarceration (California prison fire camps and the Rikers Island penal colony, respectively). But the social role of the carceral facility is not a merely academic question. People across the US, and what seems like an entire planet fast adopting the American blend of austerity and hyper-punishment, are struggling to make sense of the changing social terrain around them, characterized by increasing investments in police, prisons, and other technologies of repression.
Questions of where this regime of mass incarceration came from, what it accomplishes in the present, and where it could all be headed, are far from being arcane intellectual issues—a fact attested by the popularity of mass market items like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th, which offer pithy historical and political narratives for a hungry popular audience. For Schept, drawing on deep immersion among both abolitionist scholars and local activists, the exercise in seeing Appalachia that resulted in Coal, Cages, Crisis simultaneously furnishes valuable tools for those seeking a deeper view of their own social world for the purpose of taking deliberate action.
The primary insight guiding Coal, Cages, and Crisis is that the carceral facility is part of an ensemble of social relations extending far beyond its walls, in networks of local, state, and federal punishment, the global landscape of commodity exchange, and even the unique historical moment in which it exists. As Schept deftly demonstrates, the site selection, construction, staffing, filling, and subsequent management of prisons and jails is not simply the narrow domain of the misnamed “justice system,” reflecting its needs, nor are prisons and punishment regimes simply deployed in response to changing levels of “crime,” as conservative criminologists argue. Instead, understanding why prisons are built, and filled, requires a close look at local patterns of employment, relations of private property, histories of structural racism, and the political and cultural arenas in which regimes of prison construction and “tough on crime” policies alike are fought out. Simultaneously, considerations of profit—or the mitigation of capitalist crisis—spanning the local to the global levels help determine where cages are built and who is put in them.
Panning out from the prison to its surrounding landscape, both in terms of geography and political economy, Schept demonstrates that prisons are based around the labor market outside them, not inside. The fact that prisoners often work inside carceral facilities in the US has led to the unfortunately pervasive conspiracy theory that these costly facilities exist simply for the largely unproductive work done in them. As Schept argues, “the prison is not foundationally a form of profit-making tied, like slavery, to commodified human beings, but rather a racial mechanism for managing, and altering, the conditions of profit outside the prison.” This causal relationship between the labor market and the prison is nowhere more evident than in the single-industry economy of Appalachia, which has declined steadily with the retreat of coal mining. At the height of coal mining employment in 1949, more than 75,000 people were employed by coal companies; today that number hovers around 3,000. Prisons have been consistently advertised to residents and local governments as a sure-fire solution to the economic woes of the region, but only 6,640 people are currently employed as prison guards. It is tempting to believe that prisons filled the vacuum after coal mining left town, but the number of prison guards is not even one tenth that of the people previously employed by the coal industry. If it isn’t a simple process of prisons absorbing former coal employees, how are prisons related to the labor market?
Schept warns us that unlike other government institutions, prisons are not a neutral form of employment akin to welfare or infrastructure programs: they are the “central institutional sites of racialized class war.” Like Christian Parenti, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Tony Platt before him, Schept shows how prisons are an attempt by a society in crisis to manage the surplus labor population, namely those shut out of a livelihood by racism, discrimination, and long-term unemployment. The carceral state uses repression to manage this group of millions of people, where those incarcerated at any given moment represent only a fraction of the larger surplus population. Although this group of people is associated with urban unemployment and disinvestment, rural unemployment rates have increasingly added to the surplus population of people to be managed by police and prisons.
Similarly, Schept demonstrates that mass incarceration is composed of different scales: namely federal, state, and local, situating the carceral facility in a tiered landscape of national politics. These scales refer not just to the different jurisdictions of carceral facilities, ranging from federal prison to the county jail, but also vastly different political bureaucracies, ranging from the power politics of Washington, D.C., to the machinations of local property owners in small town governments. Most of the public attention on incarceration focuses on the state level, which houses the most prisoners at any one time—as opposed to the county jails, which incarcerate the most people per year, due to comparatively shorter sentences and higher turnover. Federal prisons, which have the smallest population, are sometimes singled out for famous prisoners or the droll “Club Fed” setting offered to so-called white collar criminals. But seldom, in the popular culture at least, are they theorized as moving parts that interact with each other.
Following the work of carceral geographers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Jack Norton, Schept examines how the burden can be passed not only between different scales of the system—such as the transfer of populations from state to local facilities that scholar Reuben Miller dubs “carceral devolution,” which offers spurious data indicating state populations going down—but also how facilities can be repurposed to work across scales. For instance, Schept details the case of Otter Creek Correctional Facility, a prison born out of a decommissioned coal mine turned garbage dump, reopened in 2020. Even after the private prison failed to deliver the economic life raft that state officials had promised and sentencing reform in Kentucky was almost a decade underway, Schept’s research participants reiterated that the reopening of this facility was the only hope for the longevity of their community. This kind of carceral entrepreneurialism is often associated with the private prison industry, which only amounts to 8% of the total human cages in the US. It is more aptly ascribed to governments and private developers on the local level who angle for carceral facilities to stimulate the local economy, and line the pockets of landowners and construction companies in the process.
But the profit incentive for prisons can be redefined even more broadly, and considering the diverse set of actors driving prison expansion enables us to see how mass incarceration is produced on the national, state, and local level by developers, politicians, and a whole host of social actors who may seem independent from the formal punishment system, and is almost never reducible to a singular strategy carried out instrumentally by a shadowy monolith called “the state.” In a fascinating case study of the prospective prison USP Letcher, Schept chronicles how vocal support for siting the prison in one Kentucky community came not just from traditional ideological proponents of “law and order” but from a variety of small businesses unrelated to incarceration, including a struggling local newspaper, various public school officials, the Facebook page representing an entire elementary school, a public university eager for partnerships with the facility, and a number of individual locals residents. “It is important to recognize the contributions of various actors within the county and region,” writes Schept, “who worked to create hospitable material and ideological conditions to recruit and site the prison.”
As Schept demonstrates, the nexus of jail boosters necessary for carceral construction is only the most prominent part of an entire cultural configuration that makes these facilities seem inevitable, if not desirable, while foreclosing other modes of life. The most meaningful contribution of prison abolition scholarship is the practice of pulling back the veil on the material and ideological forces that make prisons natural. On one hand, Schept emphasizes the role of secondary education in accepting and promoting the career possibilities for locals as prison guards and administrators. Through a number of government and privately funded grants, Appalachian universities, including Schept’s own Eastern Kentucky University, promoted criminal justice and law programs. In the recent debate about the proposed federal prison in Letcher County, educators made up a significant percentage of those submitting public comments in favor of the prison.
These comments referenced the job opportunities that would be available for graduates of their criminal justice programs, and the brighter future that would be possible for all students in the county should the prison be built. On the other hand, a particularly apt example of foreclosed futures is Letcher county residents’ use of the mountaintop site that was slated for prison construction as a club for model airplane pilots and a falconer who rescues injured birds. Both of these groups had taken advantage of the acres of flattened mountain for their own purposes, which were incompatible with the appeal to jobs and local economy that the prison was supposed to fulfill.
Schept also explores the cultural life of mass incarceration through documenting a trip to Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain Development, an expansive community revitalization project structured around the former site of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which has been converted into a tourist site. Touring the former prison himself, Schept describes a persistent ideology underlying the whole project: the prison and its guards provided an inestimable social good, expressed in both religious and secular terms, while its prisoners were bad and got what they deserved. Violence was largely among prisoners, and the violence guards used against prisoners was always justified. Further, quasi-religious language painting the prison, its guards, and the surrounding area as martyrs for the sins of the United States support a discourse Schept dubs the “national sacrifice zone,” through which Appalachia is considered the fair recipient of pollution from extraction, the dumping of trash, and the caging of unwanted people. In sum, the prison represents incarceration as a moral imperative, for which the region is destined. The Brushy Mountain Development thus demonstrates how “decommissioning a prison and transitioning it to a site of tourism can materially contribute to the sustaining of the carceral state, while also providing it with new forms of ideological legitimacy.”
The jail boosters Schept encountered in field work and archival research were largely not espousing law-and-order vitriol or racial animus but represented instead a conception of the prison as “an enduring and extensive investment in the stability of the community—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.” This vision, which Schept dubs “carceral social reproduction,” remains a popular sentiment. But Coal, Cages, Crisis demonstrates it is not the only one. Despite the powerful and coordinated campaign supporting it, USP Letcher was defeated by a coalition of abolitionists and concerned residents. The last chapter of Schept’s book, written together with fellow scholar-activist Sylvia Ryerson, is about the USP Letcher fight, considered in relation to abolitionism, and will surely be of interest to activist readers.
While the cultural power of carceral social reproduction exerts a powerful force in the popular imagination, Schept and Ryerson document pockets of resistance seemingly wherever they go, including among residents who have no problem imagining alternative uses for would be prison sites, and non-carceral schemes for local rejuvenation. Informant Mitch Whitaker generates a list of diverse possible paths of economic development in Appalachia, from tourism to manufacturing, which could put to use the lengths of train tracks set up by coal companies. “We can make sunglasses, skateboards, whatever, and bring it out of there and put it on a train and take it anywhere in the United States.” Time and again, Coal, Cages, Crisis strives to communicate that mass incarceration is not natural or inevitable, and depicts plenty of locals who prove that another way of life is not only possible, but in demand.
Fights against carceral facilities have evolved considerably in the past few decades, with regards to the ideological opposition as well as the tactics employed by these groups. Activists involved in anti-prison or jail struggles will recognize the Environmental Impact Statement and its public comment periods, as well as litigation efforts undertaken by prisoners with the help of the Abolitionist Law Center and Critical Resistance. Readers will learn up-close details about how USP Letcher was defeated, from regulatory hurdles to landowner resistance to lawsuits, all of which were used to build coalitions and create a unified, though sometimes uneven, platform of opposition. While attending to the various positions within the anti-prison group (“not in my back yard” activists, or NIMBYs, included), Schept refuses to accept yet another piece of conventional wisdom—that local communities, workers, and incarcerated people are inevitably at odds with one another. Schept insists on the possibilities for converging horizons, in which people who may not appear to have much in common with each other are actually bound not just by a common enemy but perhaps even by a shared striving for a world without human cages.