Work and Wages in the Appalachian Coalfields
Rondell Meade is a former coal miner who has lived in Letcher County, Kentucky, his entire life. Three decades ago, he applied his skills strip-mining mountaintops to a 200-acre plot of land that he and his wife, Sharon, had acquired in the 1970s to live on with their family. He mined the land and removed the mountaintop, outfitted it with water, gas, and sewage infrastructure and a few small shelters, and then invited the community to share in its open space. Since the 1980s, the Meades’ land has hosted wild mushroom pickers, weddings, model-airplane clubs, and even bluegrass shows. The famed musicians Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley once played on the Meades’ field for more than 6,000 people.
Flat land is scarce in eastern Kentucky, especially flat land that has water and gas infrastructure already built in. This might be why, in 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approached the Meades and told them it wanted to survey their property for consideration as the site for a new federal prison facility. The Meades were told that, if their land was chosen and it passed the requisite environmental-impact study, the BOP would purchase it from them. Further communication on the matter was sparing, and the potential land acquisition was presented as a statement of fact, rather than a choice. The Meades’ land had a lot of things going for it in the eyes of the feds. While the BOP had several sites under consideration, all of the other plots they were looking at would still have to undergo mountaintop removal in order to accommodate the sprawling horizontal architecture required of a penitentiary. They would also all need extensive infrastructural development. Judah Schept, a Kentucky-based scholar who has studied Appalachian prison siting and conducted extensive fieldwork in the area, notes: “Without knowing it, the Meades did most of the work for the Bureau” (correspondence with author, 2014).
If built, United States Penitentiary (USP) Letcher will be the fourth new federal prison to come to eastern Kentucky, and the fifth federal prison built in central Appalachia since 1992, with two of the previous four built just since 2000: USP Big Sandy in Martin County in 2003 and USP McCreary in McCreary County in 2004. Central Appalachia is home to sixteen prisons in total. Many of them were built on much less hospitable terrain, several literally on top of coalmines. When I asked him why he thinks the BOP picked his property, Rondell pointed out that “it’s the only piece of property in this county that’s not been under-mined.” In other words, his land, unlike most of the extensively mined hills whose open coal seams still scar the landscape, is structurally sound, bearing little risk of cracking or breaking, or, indeed, swallowing up the floor of a heavy penal facility into its hollowed center.
Prison growth in central Appalachia is part of a dramatic trend in rural prison siting across the United States. Since the onset of systematic economic deindustrialization, an increasing number of struggling rural regions, including parts of Arkansas (Eason 2016), California (Gilmore 2007), New York (Huling 2002; Norton 2016), and areas in several other states in the West including Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (Bonds 2013, 2012, and 2009, respectively), have sought to suture their economies to the promise of prison development. In communities where industrial decline and soaring poverty rates render land cheap and residents eager for new forms of employment, detention spaces are commonly pitched as economic development projects and job creation strategies. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes these regions as spaces of abandonment, or “forgotten places,” pointing to the economic continuities between the disinvested urban neighborhoods from which so many prisoners come and the impoverished rural communities in which the prisons are built. “Forgotten places are not outside of history,” she writes; “rather, they are places that have experienced the abandonment of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization” (2007, 31). In these places, disinvestment of capital, declining wages and work opportunities, and a retrenchment of public amenities coalesce to produce the systemic poverty and deprivation that prison boosters target and exploit.
In eastern Kentucky, the symbolism of new prisons built on top of former coal mines is clear. These facilities infuse local imaginaries with the promise of being the next great form of economic development. Perched atop mountains artificially flattened by industrial dynamite, penitentiaries fill both literal spatial cavities and the economic and affective voids left by coal and the extraction process known as Mountain Top Removal (MTR). Like elsewhere across the country, prison development has been used in this region to respond to various crises at once, particularly those crises of material well-being arising out of deindustrialization, structural joblessness, and low wages. Poor people with little economic future are asked to support carceral expansion on the grounds that prisons will bring self-worth and prosperity back to Appalachian families and communities.
In the putatively postcoal era, the racialized vagaries of uneven economic development and attendant social anxieties about work and wages have coalesced to repurpose the impoverished Appalachian coalfields into carceral landscapes. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in the working-class counties of eastern Kentucky, where a spate of new prison construction dots the scenery, I explore how the growth of the carceral state in this part of the country is underwritten by the ravages of economic divestment and systemic unemployment. This is an argument that requires jettisoning a popular narrative about prison expansion in which punitiveness is positioned as the guiding emotional logic of the carceral state. I find instead that ideological and emotional attachments to punishment actually prove quite brittle when compared to attachments to work and wages, at least in the rural communities increasingly asked to host such facilities. The coalfields-turned-prison-grounds in Appalachia thus provide a useful place from which to decenter the narrative of crime and punishment in favor of a renewed focus on the materiality of poverty and waged labor within critical analysis of (and antiprison organizing against) the carceral state.
One Dirty Industry Atop Another
USP Big Sandy is eastern Kentucky’s newest federal prison. A high-security federal facility for male prisoners perched on a mountaintop-removal site and finally opened in 2003, Big Sandy is also on record as the most expensive federal prison ever built, largely due to the extra $40 million needed for site remediation to address the sinking of the prison’s foundation into the abandoned deep mine beneath even before completion. The incident was a major security threat and high-profile embarrassment to the BOP and earned the institution the unfortunate, albeit clever, local nickname “Sink-Sink,” which it has yet to shake (Lockwood 2002).
The USP Big Sandy is located around the corner from a pivotal site in American history, the town of Inez, Kentucky. In 1964, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson chose Inez, a community of fewer than 500 people, as the location from which to declare his “War on Poverty.” From the front porch of an unemployed coalminer and father of eight, President Johnson promised to eliminate poverty once and for all, announcing a slew of federal programs and legislative initiatives meant to ameliorate the hardships faced by the poorest Americans. Johnson reportedly chose Inez because it was the poorest all-white county in the country. The poverty rate in this coal-mining area was then more than 60 percent, and over two-thirds of the population faced chronic unemployment.
If Inez was a face of rural poverty in 1964, it is even more strikingly so fifty years later. Appalachia is now host to the largest concentration of white impoverishment in North America. Industrial coal extraction bears much of the blame. Over the past century, local residents have made a living by growing tobacco and corn or logging and carrying timber, but mostly by working for the coal industry, either mining or moving that once widely revered staple of the industrial revolution. Central Appalachia, a region that encompasses counties across eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and West Virginia in particular, is now synonymous in the national imagination with coal mining, mountainous landscapes, and white poverty (even while parts of the region are actually quite racially diverse).
Central Appalachia has been alternately described as an internal colony, an internal periphery of the world capitalist system, and as a “national sacrifice zone” (Scott 2010), characterizations that all point to the capitalist exploitation inherent to the extractive industries of timber and coal. The charge of national sacrifice zone is particularly hard to deny upon close examination of the area’s history of resource extraction, environmental pollution, and state abandonment. Martin County, where Inez sits and where USP Big Sandy now houses prisoners from as far as Hawaii and Alaska, is today ranked the eleventh poorest county in the nation by median household income.
In 1980, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force documented that absentee coal corporations owned approximately 57 percent of the surface area of Martin County (1982, 35). Today, over a quarter of that surface area, roughly 37,760 acres, has been surface-mined, giving the county the highest percentage of surface-mined land of any county in the state of Kentucky. As surface mining’s most extreme form, MTR characterizes much of the coal extraction in the region, particularly in Kentucky, and has done so over the last several decades. MTR refers to the aggressive process of dynamiting and destroying mountains to access the coal within them. MTR transforms peaks to plateaus, and in the process produces the flat, seemingly empty land that prisons are then constructed upon. MTR coal mining is also a deeply toxic industrial practice whose ecological consequences have already been borne out in the region in the form of a massive 306-million-gallon coal-sludge spill in 2002. Surpassing the amount of the Exxon Valdez oil spill over thirtyfold, the flood of toxic waste contaminated the public water supply for 27,000 people and killed all aquatic life in the local waterways. Martin County is also now currently in the midst of a clean water crisis, one reminiscent of that faced by the residents of Detroit, albeit rooted in its own distinct, though parallel, history of resource appropriation, economic exploitation, and state abandonment.
Capitalist underdevelopment of Appalachia, of course, precedes the discovery and large-scale extraction of coal in the region. A set of colonial forces and historical contingencies made it possible for mineral rights to be sold to speculators in the first place, and for those rights to enable the industrial-scale resource extraction that would define the region for much of the twentieth century (Schept 2017). Vast territories of southern Appalachia were expropriated in the eighteenth century from the Native American groups that lived and hunted there. Between 1763 and 1773 alone, more than 4.5 million acres of Appalachian frontier were taken from indigenous groups as southern planters and eastern capitalists expanded their speculative endeavors and transformed land previously held as a common resource into a privately possessed commodity (Dunaway 1995; Billings and Blee 2000). Capitalism entered the region not through industrialization, but through colonialism, whereby the commons were enclosed, the land expropriated, and the indigenous inhabitants ethnically cleansed and dispersed.
These early settlers observed coal seams and other mineral deposits, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, speculation had proliferated. Mineral rights and mass acreage were bought up by speculators representing northern capitalist interests, both through direct sales from local farmers and through land grants provided to them by the state of Kentucky (Dunaway 1995, 61). By privileging absentee monopoly landowners over local residents, the state paved the way for private industrial development, and thus the rise of deep mining. Another tool that abetted this rise was the “broad form deed,” a trick of paperwork that “effectively transferred to the land agents all of the mineral wealth and the right to remove it by whatever means necessary, while leaving the farmer and his descendants with the semblance of land ownership, that is until the industries penetrated the region through railroads and exercised their claims to both land and what lied beneath” (Eller 1982, 55). Millions of acres of land and vast quantities of timber and mineral rights were transferred this way, and the broad form deeds would be put to later use by industry to authorize ever more mechanized, labor-free, and destructive extraction methods (Schept 2017).
For over a century, coal dominated the region as its singular economic industry. The foundational study of land ownership in Appalachia concluded in 1982 that “the dominant single industry development is highly dependent upon the control of a few, primarily corporate hands, who control the land and resources” and that companies active in the region “are taking their money out of the state and leaving nothing behind but wages: no roads, no recreation, nothing” (Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force 1982, 67). While large amounts of wealth were produced, much of it left the region, and even the wealth that stayed was unevenly distributed.
After over a century of extractive activity, the coal industry’s most lasting legacy has been to produce a place with “rich land and poor people” (Eller 2008). One recent study found that every single Appalachian county in Kentucky qualified for distressed status, meaning that they are in the bottom 10 percent of all U.S. counties in terms of economic status. Kentucky’s Fifth Congressional District, meanwhile, covering all of Appalachian Kentucky, was ranked second to last out of 436 districts on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which includes physical health and basic access.
Coal mining has now been in decline in the region for close to half a century, with the number of local coal jobs plummeting precipitously. Between 1979 and 2006, the number of people working in the mining industry in Kentucky declined from 47,190 laborers to 17,959, a decrease of over 60 percent (Kentucky Office of Energy Policy n.d.). The combined structural forces of increased mechanization within the industry, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to Asia and Latin America, and the migration of domestic coal production to lower-cost mines in the American West culminated in the 1980s in an Appalachian recession that has only deepened in subsequent decades (Eller 2008). According to local reporting from 2013, the region had lost nearly 6,000 coal jobs over the previous two-year period (Estep 2013). In just the first quarter of 2016, the industry lost over 1,500 jobs, bringing the total number in the industry down to 6,900 for the state, which marks its lowest total since 1898 (Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet 2016).
For the impoverished region, one devastated by high unemployment rates and limited by a rolling topography ostensibly inhospitable to a more varied industrial future, the promise of new prison construction is an enticing development strategy. It is also in keeping with a broader geographic trend that has seen local prison siting pitched as economic relief for similarly idled and devastated rural areas across the country (Huling 2002; Gilmore 2007; Bonds 2009, 2012; Williams 2011). Between 1990 and 1999, approximately a third of all new rural prison development across the United States occurred in four of the most economically depressed regions in the nation: the West Texas Plains, south-central Georgia, the Mississippi delta, and the coalfields of central Appalachia (Ryerson 2013).
Between 2000 and 2010, Kentucky’s prison population grew by 45 percent, compared to 13 percent for the U.S. state-prison system overall. Total state spending on carceral facilities in the fiscal year 2009 reached $513 million, up from $117 million in 1989 (Schept 2014a, 204). Schept describes how coal and prisons have been cast as the past and future, respectively, of eastern Kentucky. He characterizes the overlap in their land bases, workforces, and animating logics as the spatial exchange of one dirty industry for another (204). This shift, however, has occurred despite the dearth of evidence that this is actually an effective economic strategy (Hooks et al. 2010; Huling 2002; Ryerson 2013). Once the coal is gone and the land devalued, prison construction is introduced as a “socio-spatial fix,” a geographic solution to an economic crisis, able to reinvest capital into the landscape (Gilmore 2007). Prison siting is pitched by state actors and corporate leaders as a way to “reclaim” sites of mountaintop removal otherwise destroyed by some of the most powerful coal companies in their world and their increasingly automated mining methods.
If land is one material basis for the cultivation of a local prison imaginary, then labor is the other. Supporters argue for the prison not only as a source of crucial waged labor lost in the departure of coal jobs but also as a kind of Keynesian development tool, providing construction jobs, spreading gas and water to remote areas, and extending other infrastructure. Thus, fifty years after the “war on poverty,” the nation’s most expensive federal space of confinement, USP Big Sandy, was built in one of the poorest places in the nation in the name of economic revival and job creation. Central Appalachia has been failed not only by its coal companies in their scramble to automate the industry and depress wages but also by the state’s promise to eliminate poverty once and for all. Today, organized abandonment is indicated by rising rates of poverty and opiate addiction, plummeting median mortality and other indexes of well-being, and a fast-rising “sea of white, working class despair” (Achenbach and Keating 2017). This abandonment might be the most defining feature of rural eastern Kentucky, even while many residents continue to receive the last dregs of the welfare state in the form of Medicaid and disability benefits.1 The imperative of work—understood as both waged labor and the ethic of self-determination—retains powerful purchase within such a landscape and is worth considering as a central driving force in the production of carceral space.
Letcher County is a rural area of about 25,000 people located in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Like many of its neighbors, including Martin County, where USP Big Sandy is housed, Letcher County is not in great shape. In 2016, Fox News described its largest town as “the poster child for the war on coal”—the conservative cable news network’s way of pointing to the deleterious impacts of the decline of the coal economy. Today, the county has the second-lowest rate of labor-force participation in the country, as well as the second lowest median household income (Becker 2016). While three other federal penitentiaries have already been built in the district, the proposed USP Letcher, to be built on the reclaimed surface mine currently owned and occupied by Rondell Meade and his wife, has been in the works for a long time. Early plans for USP Letcher started in 2003, and the local planning commission has put fifteen years of work into paving the way for what was at one time an anticipated 2018 opening.
Multiple hurdles still loom for USP Letcher, and the prison is by no means a done deal. Even the Meades, who have a front-row seat to the development process, remain uncertain as to whether the prison will actually be built. There are, however, other indicators that the county is betting its economic future on the opening of a new penitentiary. Reports from the county’s newspaper suggest that it is reorganizing its educational priorities in anticipation of the labor force the prison will require. Starting in the fall of 2013, students at a vocational institution next to Letcher County Central High School were offered the possibility of applying to a new law-enforcement and criminal-justice program designed to prepare local youth for prison jobs. The Letcher County Board of Education and the Letcher County Area Technology Center formed a partnership to create the new curriculum, which is partly funded by a $40,000 gift from Kentucky River Properties, LLC, a mineral-rights holding company. The Mountain Eagle, a local newspaper, quotes the assistant superintendent for the county noting that the new program, which includes a mock courtroom and a firing range, is necessary because “2,559 criminal justice related positions now exist within a 40-mile radius, and . . . more positions are expected to be created with the opening of [the new] federal prison” (Mountain Eagle Staff 2012). The tone of the article is decidedly anticipatory: “If indeed a new federal prison were built in Letcher County, nearly all of the 350 workers who would be hired there initially would need to bring some skills with them.” The article goes on to describe the creation of a law-enforcement and criminal-justice program “in order to meet the demand for skilled workers” (Mountain Eagle Staff 2012). These reports suggest that actual educational curricula are being reorganized around a future forged through prison expansion. A similar expansion and restructuring of the criminal-justice system within the Big Sandy Community and Technical College system preceded the development of the federal penitentiary in Martin County (Ryerson 2010, 187).
Representative Hal Rogers, a long-time champion of prison construction, has promised between 300 and 450 new jobs for the area in the new prison economy. Rogers is the longest-serving Kentucky Republican in a federal office. First elected to Congress in 1980, his enduring popularity hews closely to his commitment to securing federal funding for the region, particularly in the form of projects that might revive the economic fortunes of his district. To that end, he has been a consistent champion of federal penitentiary proposals, trumpeting the benefits of hosting penal facilities in central Appalachia. In a report Rogers wrote in 1998 to the people of his district called “Creating Jobs and Opportunity for the People of Southern and Eastern Kentucky” and published in local newspapers, Rogers stated:
If there is one thing the people of southern and eastern Kentucky appreciate it’s the value of a good paying job. For generations, too many of our people have packed their bags to find a job to support themselves and their families. But time and effort are reversing that sad tradition. We are now creating new jobs at home, restoking an economy that can change the face of our region for generations to come.
The revival strategy he then goes on to outline centers around plans to build two more prison facilities in partnership with the BOP, in addition to a penitentiary already secured nearby in 1991.
For those keeping a close eye on trends in law and order, national crime rates, and even Kentucky’s particular legislative policies on criminal-justice matters, it might seem something of a surprise that the state is continuing its corrections building spree. The U.S. prison population has recently seen its first decline in almost forty years, and polls show that the majority of Americans believe it ought to keep shrinking. Meanwhile, crime rates have remained stable in Kentucky over the past few decades, as they have elsewhere in the country. Kentucky legislatures have embraced at least the rhetoric of prison reform by enacting a series of justice-reinvestment measures, symbolizing a turn away from the tough-on-crime policies associated with mass incarceration. Yet prison and jail expansion continues in the region, suggesting that, just as increases in crime cannot explain Kentucky’s prison growth, neither can perceptions of crime or an upsurge in “punitive feeling” among the region’s voters. Instead, the discourse among prison boosters, local politicians, and residents alike is decidedly focused on one central and glaring local crisis: chronic unemployment.
Schept asks how “the carceral state animates a particular future” (2014b, 215). The postcoal towns of eastern Kentucky suggest that it does so, at least partly, by harnessing prisons ideologically to the drive to labor and all the complex material, psychic, and affective needs and aspirations that drive encompasses, especially among the working class. Taken to include people who work as well as people who are expected to work, the category of the working class as it is used here encompasses, importantly, the unemployed and the unwaged. The ideology of work must be thus considered, in tandem with the wage-relation, as itself a structuring and coercive force in the production of the carceral state.
Both the stagnation of working-class wages and the consolidation of government programs around the ethic of work are hallmarks of the neoliberal state and its transformation of the welfare system into a workfare system. Indeed, neoliberal restructuring encompasses ideological as well as material processes. One consequence of the ideological force of neoliberalism has been the reduction of all social aspirations for well-being to the narrow field of individual struggle and privatized responsibility. Neoliberal policies and rationalities thus organize the horizon of possibilities at all scales. So, while economic despair animates carceral growth in eastern Kentucky, ameliorations to its injuries are imagined primarily through the frameworks of individual responsibility and self-improvement, and employment is considered the primary vehicle for both. These frameworks obscure the social production of scarcity in regions underdeveloped by capital disinvestment and austerity measures. As geographer Anne Bonds points out, for example, in the case of Idaho and Montana, “as neoliberal rural restructuring leads communities to pursue development strategies that put places in direct competition with one another for scarce resources (e.g. community block grants, industrial development) and employment opportunities, poverty is denied and invisibilized by community officials seeking to remain competitive for investment” (2009, 433). Insofar as neoliberalism’s purchase on individualism structures us affectively as fragmented subjects, all socially, economically, and politically produced problems are themselves converted into consumer items. The improvisation of a viable existence emerges as the ongoing crisis and privatized burden of people’s lives.
Appeals to the job needs of local residents, meanwhile, continue to misrepresent the material realities of their actual chances of employment. So while the various prisons built in eastern Kentucky over the past dozen years have been proposed and marketed as de facto federal jobs creation programs, this has been done without any guarantee of actual work or economic improvement. Research into the economic impact of existing facilities proves how hollow such promises often are. For example, in Elliot County, where Little Sandy Correctional Complex was built in 2001, the civilian-labor-force participation hovers around 39 percent, the median household income is $29,700, and the poverty rate remains at 31 percent (Letcher Governance Project).
Indeed, the unlikelihood of being hired in the new institutions often becomes clear only late in the process, once construction has begun and the conditions for employment in them are finally released to the public (Ryerson 2010). In the case of USP McCreary, the qualifications were laid out at the first job-information seminar held at the local high school after prison construction had commenced:
All applicants would be drug-tested and put through an extensive background check that would go back seven years or to their 16th birthday. All new hires would need a clean credit history and no criminal record. All new hires would have to be younger than 38 years of age. There would be a rigorous physical exam and interview process. County residents would be given no preference in the hiring process, and a four-year college degree and previous institutional experience were “highly recommended.” (Ryerson 2013)
As Sylvia Ryerson notes, these requirements eliminated most of the county’s unemployed and underemployed population. In my own interviews with residents of Martin and Letcher Counties, even those who knew about the low local hiring rates of nearby penitentiaries were still hopeful that prisons would continue to be built. One person said to me about USP Big Sandy, “when that prison was first built, from the way I understand it, about 60 percent of the jobs were filled by people transferring in from other prisons,” yet he was adamant that it still offered the possibility of “a good job” (Dan, interview with author, 2014).
North of Letcher County in Wheelwright, Kentucky, Sam Little, head of the Wheelwright Historical Society, noted in conversation with Schept the rumored plans to reopen a decommissioned private prison in the community. “I don’t care if they put in a donut factory, as long as it brings us jobs!” Little said to Schept. Little’s sentiment, reiterated in some form by many others, conveys how central the hope for jobs is to local support for prison development. It also, however, reveals an incipient politics of a possible alternative future unmoored from the prison industrial complex. While a donut factory specifically might not be the most promising or transformative economic alternative, the point is that job-creation strategies other than prison construction do exist and can be imagined.
When we consider carceral politics through the framework of work, wages, and uneven development, alternatives to prison building and prison filling become newly and, perhaps, even more easily imaginable. If local people were offered alternate economic strategies or policies that made possible survival and prosperity while staying in their communities and living well there, then the promises of the prison boosters would lose their psychic hold. Prison expansion, in other words, makes sense only when it at least appears to fill a need that indexes to actual experience. Fill the need through other means, and the prison as a social and spatial fix becomes redundant. The politics of abolition, within this view, fuses necessarily with the politics of economic justice. The struggle to create a society free of cages is the struggle to create a society free of poverty and class oppression.
The town of Wheelwright is a proper company town, established in 1916 by the Elk Horn Coal Company. Inland Steel provided the bulk of the town’s jobs and funded much of its infrastructure until the late 1960s, just shortly before the local coal mine was finally closed. In more recent years, Wheelwright also had its own penitentiary, a private prison owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) called the Otter Creek Correctional Facility. CCA closed Otter Creek in 2012, making 180 workers redundant immediately. The economic conditions in the community were already abysmal, and the closure only worsened them. In 2011, census data showed that 27 percent of the population of the county lived below the poverty line, with per capita income hovering around $16,000. Compared to the rest of the county, Wheelwright’s situation is even worse, with 42.3 percent of people living below the poverty line and a $7,447 per capita income (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2010).
The town’s history demonstrates the work of uneven development, the theory that observes that capital investment in one place necessitates divestment elsewhere, because capital must remain in constant motion in order to avoid crisis. Neil Smith calls this the “see-saw” movement of capital (1984). Observing this see-saw in Wheelwright, Schept notes that the land went from a mountain to a coalmine, from a coalmine to a trash dump, from the dump to the prison, and from the prison to the empty facility (2017). The constant movement of capital in search of new ground for increased profit margins, dating back more than a century and a half, continues today to structure Wheelwright’s poverty and dependence on new investment. In the absence of alternatives, even investment that proves bad for labor is welcomed. While many in the area conflate prison construction with progress, much as industrial coal mining also long signaled economic improvement, several other residents, all former coal miners and former corrections officers, spoke to Schept of adjusting to consistently lowering wages, a trend against which they felt powerless. One, for example, noted the relatively high starting wages available to miners, compared with the diminished wage of a beginning CCA guard, which was around $8.50 an hour. Wheelwright residents long for the prison to reopen, even though they realize they are not in a position to negotiate for wages or better living standards (Schept 2017; Story and Schept 2018).
As these examples illustrate, prisons are being actively marketed in the coal towns of eastern Kentucky as the future of postindustrial economic development and the only real hope for reliable jobs. Prison boosters have exploited real and well-founded fears of unyielding destitution among the residents of Appalachia in order to sell a narrative of prison growth as the solution to the region’s economic woes. The material and ideological scaffolding for that narrative is the dire situation of hemorrhaging mining jobs and rising poverty rates. Especially notable in the narrative is the near total absence of concerns about crime or particular feelings about penalty as such. The affective infrastructure of “law and order” here, it turns out, is not so much the punishment imperative as it is the work ethic.
In more than two dozen interviews conducted with residents of prison-hosting or would-be communities across Letcher, Floyd, and Martin Counties in eastern Kentucky, not a single person spoke of crime, criminals, safety, or punishment in their reflections about existing or forecast prison facilities (Story and Schept 2018). The terms in which people spoke about prisons in their counties were almost entirely contained within the frameworks of work and economic development. Gary Cox, a former coal worker who now manages a small airport that shares a resurfaced mountaintop with USP Big Sandy in Martin County, explained: “The prison is a good paying job. And it’s recession proof. You close a factory down, and you ship the jobs overseas. You can’t do that to a federal prison.” Even Meade, who admitted he couldn’t imagine leaving his land, was fairly unequivocal on the issue of USP Letcher’s necessity to the region: “If the prison brings jobs then of course I’ll welcome it here.”
Ryerson’s exhaustive study of the process and debates surrounding the construction of new prisons in eastern Kentucky over the past fifteen years discovers a similar sentiment. With a few minor exceptions, she writes, “The fate of those to be held within did not enter the public discourse at all” (2010, 118). Instead, authorities and media tended to frame both the function and promise of new prisons entirely in terms of employment, whether directly through prison jobs or indirectly through the goods and services putatively required by workers and visiting family members. On the opening day of USP McCreary in 2004, for example, Jim Johnson, chairman of the local steering committee, stated: “From the very beginning, the prison has been a symbol of hope and opportunity for McCreary County. . . . The best is yet to come as more citizens are hired and our businesses are able to sell more goods.” At the same event, Congressman Rogers remarked: “A lot of communities don’t want a prison but obviously there was interest [here], this community and this county were hungry for jobs. . . . For the first time in around 100 years, we’re gaining population. . . . We’re keeping young people here. We’re seeing a whole new middle class develop where one has been absent” (both Johnson and Rogers quoted in Slaven 2004).
The near absence of punishment rhetoric or concerns about crime in his comments suggests the carceral state’s adaptability to multiple legitimating narratives. While Kentucky has been among the fastest growing carceral states over the past fifteen years, and one that has seen an expansion of its incarceration rate during the recent period of prison downsizing elsewhere (Vera Institute 2018), it is poverty rather than punitiveness that supports its carceral logic. The chronology of prison development in the region bears repeating. First, it is concern about rural work, rather than crime rates or sentencing policy, that animates local support for new prison development. Second, the drive to punish so-called offenders follows from, rather than produces, the prison’s place in the community.
Against Punishment: Work as Ideology
Within criminal-justice scholarship, there is a long history of analysis that lays the rise of mass incarceration at the feet of what has been called the “punitive turn,” the “culture of control” (Garland 2001), the “punishment imperative” (Clear and Frost 2014), and the “get tough” or “tough on crime” movement. These works make some variation of the same argument: the rise of the carceral state is largely or exclusively due to changes in sentencing policies and a broader law and order politics characterized by hardened attitudes toward crime. Such analysis makes valuable contributions to an understanding of such an unprecedented rise in imprisonment, accurately noting the harsher and broader scope of sentences that are constitutive of our national reliance on incarceration. But as Jordan Camp (2016) argues, the carceral state arose as the central political expression of neoliberal racial capitalism concerned with challenges to its legitimacy. Camp notes that prison and police power became the predominant—and, crucially, the “common sense”—way for the state to respond to freedom struggles and social movements and a way to fix the social wreckage wrought by neoliberal policies and state disinvestments from the 1970s onward. That wreckage includes rising and systematic rates of unemployment, underemployment, and stagnant wages.
The prison is used as a political tool to resolve numerous crises of the neoliberal moment, particularly those arising out of structural joblessness and chronic poverty. Evidence from current developments in the carceral state would seem to confirm this analysis. First, recent work on the continuation of carceral practices under the guise of criminal-justice reform demonstrates that incarceration and forms of custodial control do not necessarily need to rely on discourses of punishment for legitimacy (Kilgore 2014a; Schept 2015). Furthermore, the emergence of newly branded spaces of detention across the United States over the past two decades, often cloaked behind euphemisms that cast them as more humane or somehow socially progressive, indicates the mutability of confinement architectures, or at least their labels. Some of these prisons and jails are now called “reflection cottages,” “justice campuses,” “gender-responsive prisons,” and “mental health jails,” thus suggesting the carceral state’s adaptability to reformist critique and its autonomy from neoconservative law-and-order politics (Citizens United for a Responsible Budget 2007; Cullors-Brignac and Zuñiga 2014; Parks 2013; Schept 2015). While it must be acknowledged that changing discourses of punishment can have real consequences for incarcerated people’s lives and that distinctions in confinement conditions and conceptual mantles do matter for those inside,2 such distinctions in general do little to change the monopoly of detention spaces as the state’s go-to fix for social problems. More to the point, however, the logic of punishment and punitive feeling inadequately explains the stability and even extension of the carceral state in these instances when the expansion of carceral institutions (jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, work release, etc.) have been justified precisely through a set of logics that mimic a critique of punishment-oriented penal policy. In other words, the discourse of punishment can itself operate ideologically to mystify the actual animating forces of police and carceral power.
The problem with the language of punishment, as a guiding concept for critique, is that it is indexed to a deviant act. Its very invocation alludes to the existence of a thing to be punished. That thing (which, in the case of prisons, we call “crime”) is bracketed off as self-evident and beyond debate. The concept of punishment thus succeeds in framing any contestation over particular practices deemed punitive in terms of degree and of type: how much punishment is enough or too much and what should be its proper character and form. The fact that crime itself has been demonstrated historically to be both a relative and mutable sociolegal category and one that, as Linebaugh argues, belongs to capitalism and its vicissitudes (2004), is allowed little space within the characterization of incarceration as a regime of punishment. The same necessarily goes with the category of the criminal, which, as Gilmore points out, “has long been on the rise in the lexicon of putatively transparent or self-explanatory terms—like race or gender—used to designate fundamental (whether fixed or mutable) differences between kinds of people” (2009, 80). Within the neoliberal logic of personal responsibility, the designation of someone as criminal and the racialization of so-called criminals more often than not as black and brown do a great deal of work to congeal increasingly exclusionary regimes of civic participation and access to public goods. The criminal fuses the “undeserving” and the “dangerous,” who become one. Any critique that fails to also challenge the very ontology of the “criminal,” let alone its racialized and classist investments, as a placeholder for all things bad and threatening thus only furthers to consolidate the conflation of prisons with safety in the political imaginary.
Indeed, the assumption that it is fear of crime and attachment to punishment that constitute the ideological infrastructure of America’s prison regime leaves the logics, relations, and interests that actually produce prisons, prisoners, and the carceral state wholly intact. Dislodging the prison as a “key ingredient of our common sense” (Davis 2003, 18) therefore requires thinking less about punishment and more about the social relations that currently order the social landscape, their ritualization in social space, and their representation in thought. In other words, we must rethink what constitutes the ideology or ideologies that currently uphold America’s sprawling prison regime. The historian Barbara Jeanne Fields, in her own investigation of the production of race as ideology, writes, instructively: “A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed” (1990, 106). The challenge for critical prison scholars, reformers and abolitionists alike, then, is not that of convincing people that African Americans and other highly incarcerated and criminalized groups are not indeed inferior, for that is not how ideology works anyway. The task is rather to abolish the very institutions and relations that oppress them. Doing so first requires demystifying the prison itself as a system of social relations, including the exploitative relations of waged labor. The prison is an institution that produces punishment norms rather than one produced by punitive feeling.
While crime-and-punishment remains the dominant framework for theorizing the function and failures of the nation’s carceral apparatus, there is a growing body of work that demonstrates how prisons have come to perform a significant function as a labor market institution (Western and Beckett 1999; Wacquant 2009; Purser 2012). The prison’s structural relationship to employment has perhaps been analyzed most thoroughly in relation to the idled labor of those incarcerated, a disproportionately urban and African American population rendered increasingly surplus by deindustrialization and the globalization of capital. Indeed, when it is put in the context of the U.S. political economy as a whole, one finds that the expansion of the American prison population from the 1970s onward tracks alongside the deregulation of the U.S. labor market and the stagnation of workers’ wages. This surplus population, itself abandoned by capital and the state and residing often in disinvested urban neighborhoods, makes up the greatest share of the nation’s prisoners today.
As Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore (2008) have argued in the context of Chicago, the twenty-first-century prison system now functions institutionally to manage but also to produce systemic unemployability across a criminalized class. In the restructured urban labor market of the deindustrialized, neoliberal economy, uneducated black and Latinx men and women have been relegated to the lowest echelons of the waged labor system, often as surplus labor. Describing the ways in which incarceration itself functions to structure chronic unemployment, Peck and Theodore describe how African American men are first excluded from the labor market and then locked up in what has become characterized as a warehousing prison system. “So ensnared,” they write, “this criminalized class has been almost completely detached from the job market, the segmentations within which have calcified, just as the form of the accompanying regulatory institutions has ‘hardened’” (276). They suggest that the contemporary prison system wields significant influence on the social distribution of work and wages, and thus the relative bargaining power of those racially differentiated segments of the working poor. As a labor-market institution, the prison system both absorbs and conceals unemployment, on the one hand, and exacerbates it, on the other, as those released with criminal status find themselves marked and often unable to find full-time work in the formal economy.
The intimate relationship between prisons and the labor market has perhaps only intensified in the neoliberal period, as the enforcement of work, as the flipside to the defense of property rights, solidifies as a particular preoccupation and organizational function of the postwelfare state. Work as an ideology and waged labor as a market institution structure the logic of prison-building as a revival strategy in economically depressed rural regions. Indeed, from the point of view of those nonincarcerated subjects who themselves occupy the lower rungs of what Deborah Cowen and Amy Siciliano (2011) call surplus masculinities in disinvested areas like Appalachia, prisons are first and foremost an employment opportunity, disassociated from normative attachments to punishment.
In the twenty-first-century postcoal prison towns of eastern Kentucky, one encounters something akin to the “aspirational normativity” identified by Lauren Berlant: “The ongoing prospect of low-waged and uninteresting labor” as the horizon of imagined possibility for the project of life-building under capitalism (2007, 275). The social and economic squeeze put on the American working class since the 1970s under the sign of neoliberalism has not only devastated the wages and bargaining power of those in Appalachia who have managed to find employment but has also, for many, reified work in any form as the most coveted goal and most significant indicator of a person’s value. Even the region’s high rates of prescription drug addiction (Potter 2009) are lamented, at least in the interviews I conducted, in terms that position the problem of idled labor more urgently than any other dire consequence. As one local lumber worker I interviewed in 2014 bemoaned: “Drug addicts—they got them state Medicaid cards, and it pays for everything. And they won’t work—young, healthy people, who won’t work. It’s a real shame.”
It is in this sense that work, conceived broadly to include both the waged relation and the work ethic, rather than punishment, constitutes the most salient ideological feature and social relation animating Kentucky’s carceral state. As political scientist Kathi Weeks theorizes, “the glorification of work as a prototypically human endeavor, as the key both to social belonging and individual achievement, constitutes the fundamental ideological foundation of contemporary capitalism: it was built on the basis of this ethic, which continues to serve the system’s interests and rationalize its outcomes” (2011, 109). This ideological bedrock, buttressed by desperate levels of poverty, imbues prison expansion with a logic it might not have otherwise. Which is to suggest, more simply, that the project of rethinking prisons requires a broad rethinking of the very ideology of work and the social relation of waged labor as centerpieces of the political economy.
In eastern Kentucky, like elsewhere, one hears in the testimonies of unemployed and underemployed residents little hope for the future outside of the production of stable waged work, regardless of what that work actually is. Berlant describes such sentiments as “the production as desire of a collective will to imagine oneself as a solitary agent who can and must live the good life promised by capitalist culture” (2007, 278). Citizens of modern capitalism in the United States are exhorted, she argues, “to understand that the ‘bottom line’ of national life is neither utopia nor freedom but survival, which can be achieved only by a citizenry that eats its anger, makes no unreasonable claims on resources or control over value, and uses its most creative energy to cultivate intimate spheres while scraping a life together feasibly in response to the market-world’s caprice” (2000, 127). The drive to work is one very powerful, indeed perhaps central, response to such caprice. If such an observation seems both self-evidently true and natural or immutable, then it is worth revisiting the historical collective struggles once forged around demands that decentered or reimagined the character, conditions, and affective value of work in social life. These include the fights for governmental guarantees to full employment or income so central to post-Reconstruction black-freedom struggles (see Singh 2003 and Stein 2014b), campaigns for guaranteed basic income (van Parijs 1992), and feminist demands forged under the banner of “wages for housework” (Dalla Costa and James 1973). They also include historical investments by black, brown, and white working people in socialist visions for economic power and the redistribution of the social surplus, including control over industrial processes and universal access to basic goods.
Such aspirational struggles even once had a life in Appalachia. Scholar David Stein recounts that, in the early 1960s, in response to the decline of the coal industry and widespread poverty and unemployment, people in eastern Kentucky formed the Appalachian Committee for Full Employment: “They struggled intensely against mine operators, politicians, the police, and the leadership of the United Mine Workers while pursuing governmental guarantees to a job or income” (2014b). “Full employment” was imagined much more expansively than simply the provision of waged work. The committee’s plan included a special education center for children who needed supplemental attention and for adult education, medical clinics, day care centers, and rebuilt homes with adequate plumbing and sewers. Such campaigns underscored that the problem of wagelessness is centrally a political one. People are not rendered surplus in general; they are rendered surplus or disposable from the perspective of the market and the state that serves its needs. Like prisons themselves, the problem of structural unemployment is produced out of a series of competing forces and imperatives endemic to racial capitalism. This suggests that the struggle against systemic unemployment, against precarious, low-wage, and uninteresting labor, and against the control of the wageless through a race-making carceral state apparatus, can—and should—be one and the same.
At the summer 2016 gathering of the Saving Our Appalachian Region summit, Rogers, a co-convener of the annual gathering and a central political force behind prison growth in the region, took the stage to discuss the need for economic diversification. While rehearsing a pitch he has now been making for close to twenty years, Rogers was disrupted by activists from the Letcher Governance Project. The protesters stood up and unfurled a banner reading “Prisons are not Innovation” and “Our $444 million,” referencing the projected costs of prison construction and implicitly demanding that the money be used in other ways.
These activists are challenging prison siting on the terrain of a just economic transition in Appalachia. They are also deploying a racial justice analysis in their work, insisting that the eastern Kentucky economy not be built on the caging of poor people. What they perceive, which is often lost in sociological and criminological treatments of the prison, is that prison growth is only loosely tethered to punishment regimes. Attachments to work (both the wage relation and the work ethic) rather than attachments to punishment constitute the more critical ideological pillar animating Kentucky’s carceral state. This reframing is important because it broadens the political horizons of possibility for those arguing for alternatives to incarceration. Focusing too narrowly on the ideology of punishment, so narrowly as to preclude a view of the wider political economy that both hosts and makes desirable the production of carceral space, limits any ensuing debate on questions about the suitability and scale of penalty (how much punishment is too little or too much) rather than questioning the very political and affective economy of the prison itself.
The social project of rethinking the practice of incarceration, and of abolishing prisons and other like structures of captivity and premature death, will fail so long as the terms we use to describe or denounce it hinge on the assumption that prisons emerge out of the logic of punishment, rather than vice versa. Such thinking produces a critique of mass incarceration on the grounds that it is a disproportionate, unaffordable, excessively cruel, or racially biased response to the problem of crime and the punitive feeling crime ostensibly generates. Though it may also be those things, the problem is that the prison regime is rendered itself correctable or reformable within such a framework.
Structural unemployment and wagelessness share with prisons a reified status in the modern landscape, but also a historical contingency that tells us, importantly, that the social order could be organized otherwise. This is also to suggest that the joblessness of poor and working-class Appalachians cannot be seamlessly disentangled from the structural underemployment that characterizes both the preincarceration and postincarceration lives of so many prisoners across the country. Activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues: “It is true that Blacks and Latino/as are disproportionately affected by the country’s harsh economic order, but this is a reality they share with the majority of white workers. The common experience of oppression and exploitation creates the potential for a united struggle to better the conditions of all” (2016, 214). While high rates of unemployment might be essential for capital to maintain working-class discipline and depressed wages, their disciplinary power works only if struggles and aspirations are also tied to waged labor; one must see jobs as central to one’s capacity both to materially survive and to have value in the capitalist economy. Waged labor thus not only offers a site from which to understand the political work of the carceral state beyond punishment but also can serve as an organizing platform across key struggles and disparate geographies, from the impoverished and ecologically devastated coalfields of Appalachia, to the disinvested neighborhood blocks of Brownsville, Brooklyn, to the sites of mass eviction and water privatization in Detroit. In all these spaces, people have been dispossessed of economic power and the resources necessary to survive and to thrive.
The relationship of the prison to the labor market, to the wage relation, and to normative attachments to work must be considered central to any meaningful efforts to devolve, decarcerate, and eventually to abolish the prison as an institution and idea. Recognizing this relationship therefore renders visible the insurmountable contradiction between the so-called prison reform efforts of those, like the billionaire Koch brothers, who simultaneously act to undermine worker power and living wages among both the urban poor and the rural poor. Indeed, this contradiction points to some of the larger problems with contemporary bipartisan reform efforts. While decades of research demonstrate that the growth of the prison system is intimately tied up with the problems of structural joblessness, poverty economies, and stagnation of workers’ wages following the economic crises of the early 1970s, mainstream prison reform continues to be propagated as if autonomous from the ongoing issues of labor power and public entitlements.
The carceral state draws its tenacity from diverse political and economic pools, allowing prisons, jails, and other constitutive parts to serve as solutions to very different kinds of communities navigating different elements of capitalist crisis. With both carceral humanism (Kilgore 2014a; Schept 2014b) and rural prison building, the neoliberal state further retracts from the social wage and further cements its political organization around police and carceral power (Camp 2016). The contemporary period’s jobless economic growth and contingent labor opportunities for former prisoners coalesce to produce what Michael Hallett calls the “jobless future” as the definitive condition facing those reentering society, a condition that no amount of reentry money or job-readiness training will change (2012). Structural forces work so devastatingly against the income security of the poor and racialized populations that make up the bulk of the U.S. prison population that even the best individual reentry programs offer little chance of offering their participants actual secure employment. Perhaps this is why the wage itself must be defetishized and wage labor decentered from our constructions of alternatives. If a prison job can be so easily sold as the solution to wagelessness, then perhaps we must think not in terms of wagelessness at all, but rather coerced dependence on the labor market and economic justice more broadly.
For sacrifice zones like eastern Kentucky, abolition politics is also, necessarily, class struggle. A sacrifice zone is a geographic area impaired by environmental damage or by economic disinvestment. Eastern Kentucky has been ravaged by both. The devastation brought upon this region and the space it has opened up for prison boosters to pitch carceral infrastructure as the future to which locals must hitch their aspirations tell us that simply disrupting the organizing logics that produce prisons is not enough. Abolitionist scholarship and organizing must also take on the historical patterns and economic relationships that underdeveloped the region and produced systemic unemployment and poverty in the first place. Decarceration strategy and critical scholarship should focus on dispossession, expropriation, the wage relation, and uneven development, since these are the issues that, left unaddressed, underwrite the continued growth of the carceral state, even during periods of so-called reform. It is precisely as a social system that inheres poverty and precarity that waged labor bears so meaningfully, and devastatingly, on the carceral production of surplus life. This is why challenging the very imperative to “just get a job”—for those who are incarcerated as well as for those for whom prisons figure as possible workplaces—constitutes a necessary pillar of abolitionist politics, and liberation struggle more broadly.