Plans for a new federal prison are floating around Letcher County, Kentucky, a rural county of about 25,000 people located in the Appalachian coalfields. Prison proponents say it will turn our economy around, that it could become the new center of our “post-coal” economy. Others believe that getting a prison, while not ideal, may be the best we can get — and we simply can’t afford to be picky. But what else is there to say?
While we wait to see whether Congress will appropriate more money for prisons, what better time to look to our neighboring counties and ask – did this work for you? Because building prisons in Appalachia as a means of economic development is nothing new.
If built, United States Penitentiary (USP) Letcher will be the fourth new federal prison to come to eastern Kentucky, and the sixth federal prison built in Central Appalachia, since 1992 – in addition to many new state prisons. Central Appalachia has become one of the most concentrated areas of new prison growth. Between 1990-1999 approximately one third of all rural prison construction nationwide occurred in four of the most economically depressed regions in the country, according to demographer Calvin L. Beale. Those regions were the West Texas Plains, South Central Georgia, the Mississippi Delta and the coalfields of Central Appalachia. Since Beale’s study just over 10 years ago, three more prisons have been built in the coalfields.
Each prison came with promises about jobs and economic development. But what has happened since construction? For one example among many, let’s look to McCreary County, Kentucky.
On the evening of May 21, 1998, six years before the prison opened in McCreary County, representatives from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a private consulting firm hosted a public hearing in the McCreary Central High School auditorium. David J. Dorworth, chief of the Site Selection & Environmental Review Branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the 175 people in attendance about the potential economic boost:
The proposal to build a Federal facility will have significant economic impact. The project costs could range from 90 to a 110, perhaps more, million dollars in project costs… Once the facility is open, it will have an operating budget in the range of $25 million a year… and 80 percent of that money will be spent locally on salaries, purchases of goods and services, and utilities. There will also be substantial job creation as a result of the opening of the facility.
That was welcome news. McCreary County’s budget was in the red, and rumors were going around that if the county didn’t find a way to balance the budget, it would cease to exist altogether and be absorbed into surrounding counties. In 1990, McCreary County had the lowest per capita income level in the state, and a staggering 45 percent of the population was living below the poverty line.
“At that particular time it was the biggest thing, it was like Santa Claus has come,” said Jimmie Greene, who was then McCreary County judge-executive. “He’s given us a gift that we didn’t expect, didn’t know anything about. And I was just overjoyed.”
McCreary County laid out the red carpet to ensure the prison’s arrival – running new septic lines, paving roads, building a whole new water treatment plant.
But Dorworth also explained that local people wouldn’t get all the new jobs:
The Bureau of Prisons will bring in about 40 percent of those positions, and the reason we do that is we don’t like to open prisons with new or inexperienced people… That leaves the balance, 60 percent, for local people to compete for. And I don’t want to mislead anyone by implying or suggesting that there’s a guarantee that the 60 percent of those jobs will go to people within the region or commuting area of the county. The number of jobs will be a function of the readiness of the community to compete for those particular jobs.
Dorworth did not detail the terms of that competition. So the prison was proposed as a federal jobs creation program — with no guarantee of jobs.
It was not until the fall of 2001 – a year into the prison’s construction – that the qualifications for getting a job at the prison became apparent, at the first job information seminar held at the local high school. 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 (because of “hazardous work” laws that require federal prison employees to retire at age 57, and one must work at least 20 years to earn a full pension). 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.”
The requirements eliminated most of the county’s unemployed and underemployed population. Rodney Miller, general manager of the local newspaper in Manchester, was one of the many residents who had hoped to get a job when the prison opened in Clay County. He realized he was ineligible — in his case, he was just a few years too old. “They rip and tear you apart,” he said. “It’s like applying to be president of the United States.”
Local Jobs Didn’t Materialize
Blaine Phillips succeeded Jimmie Greene as judge-executive and took office the year the McCreary federal prison opened. The front-page newspaper picture of the dedication ceremony shows Phillips standing shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.-5th) smiling as they cut the ribbon for the new prison. Five years later, Phillips spoke about the low number of local hires.
“Of the 300 and something employees that work at the prison, I don’t think we have over 25 or 30 local people that are working there,” he said. “And the others, they don’t even live here. They drive from Pulaski County and Whitley County; they don’t chose to live here. It was not what they were telling us at first.”
Bureau of Prison employees with prior work experience took most of the positions (including almost all of the higher paid jobs). Most live outside McCreary County. They did not buy local real estate, shop at local businesses or put their children in the county school system. Once the prison opened it chose to purchase supplies from national wholesalers, not local businesses. And the county’s property tax base was permanently reduced when the prison land transferred from private ownership to the federal government.
In the winter of 2003-2004, just months before the McCreary County federal prison was set to open, the county was once again about to go broke. The budget had already been cut by $100,000, and Judge-Executive Phillips was worried they were going to have to start cutting basic services. So in a desperate attempt to generate more revenue, he instituted a payroll tax.
The proposal was controversial. And the citizens who were most opposed to the tax were the new prison employees who had just transferred from out of state but who chose not to live in McCreary County, according to McCreary County occupational tax collector Stephanie Tucker. Many of these employees subsequently managed to avoid paying the tax, she said.
The same month Phillips instituted the new tax on McCreary Countians, U.S Rep. Rogers secured $163 million for law enforcement and development efforts in southern and eastern Kentucky. Forty-two million of the total was set aside for McCreary County – but only for the operation of the McCreary prison. Another $42 million went to operations at a new prison in Martin County, and $32 million more went to the operations of a prison in Clay County. In all, of the $163 million Rogers secured for helping eastern Kentucky, 71 percent was allocated to operating prisons.
It’s been 21 years since the federal prison opened in Clay County, a decade since the prison opened in Martin County, and nine since opening day at the McCreary prison – and none of the promises of Dorworth, the federal prison official, have been fulfilled. Clay, McCreary and Martin remain three of the poorest counties in one of the nation’s poorest Congressional districts.
Central Appalachia’s experience is not unique. Prisons don’t work as economic development engines, researchers say. One study analyzed data on every rural county in the United States, with or without a prison, from 1969-2004. The report concluded: “We find no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth. In fact we provide evidence that prison construction has impeded economic growth in rural counties that have been growing at a slow pace.”
The same study found that counties facing the toughest economic conditions are the ones most likely to be hurt, not helped, by prison construction. These counties are more willing to offer up scarce financial resources to entice the prisons to come, yet have the lowest number of residents who meet the job qualifications. They also are less likely to offer the amenities that attract transferring prison employees to stay within the county. As leading rural prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it: “Counties are making themselves poorer to get an economic benefit that will not benefit the county. And this we have seen over and over again throughout the United States.”
The Letcher County Planning Commission knows the positions offered will require skills, and so they are doing their best to prepare a workforce. Starting in the fall of 2013, students at the vocational school adjacent to the Letcher County Central High School will have the opportunity to apply to a new law enforcement and criminal justice program, spearheaded by Superintendent Anna Craft and designed to prepare kids for prison jobs.
But such preparation can only go so far. In the years leading up to the opening of the Big Sandy federal prison in Martin County, a similar program was started at Prestonsburg campus of the Big Sandy Community and Technical College — designed to prepare locals for the prison jobs. Mike Dixon has been head coordinator since the beginning, and as he told me in 2009:
I don’t think the program is the panacea that they expected it to be. That all one would have to do would be to come here and earn an associate’s degree and be automatically guaranteed a position at the new prison in Martin County. It is rare that somebody just leaves Big Sandy [Community and Technical College], goes on to [Eastern Kentucky University], gets a bachelors degree in criminal justice, and walks right through the front door of the Big Sandy Penitentiary. That’s not the norm, OK. Over the past 11 years, we have managed to graduate about 250 students. Some of them, I’m gonna say maybe as many as 10 or 12, or between 10 and 15, are now employed as correctional officers at the Big Sandy Penitentiary in Martin County. But if we’ve graduated over 250 people in our 11-history, and only 10 or 15 are working there, that gives you some idea of how disillusioned people can get even though they may have the education that’s required.
It’s nearly impossible to get a correctional officer position at the Big Sandy federal prison without previous work experience in a prison. So many of Dixon’s students end up leaving the county after graduation – traveling as far away as Florida and Texas – to find work in lower-security state or private prisons with less rigorous employment requirements. Some come back, many do not. In such a way, such programs can increase youth outmigration, not reverse it.
But what happens if a county kid is one of the lucky ones to get the coveted position? As the Whitesburg (Ky.) Mountain Eagle reported in December, to prepare for the new training program, “The board also approved budgeting $28,000 to purchase materials and supplies needed to divide vacant space at the new Letcher County Area Technology Center to create classroom areas, a courtroom and a virtual shooting range needed for the new program.”
What kind of so-called “rehabilitative” system requires the training of teenagers at a virtual shooting range? We’ve all heard about the school-to-prison pipeline channeling grossly disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino youth into the system from a young age. What kind of school-to-prison pipeline are we creating for young people here in the mountains?
There is so much we can learn from our neighboring counties, of both their failures and their successes, if we take the time to listen. And if we listen closely, in this urgent moment of searching for real possibilities for transition, we’ll hear that prisons are no transition at all.
So what do we do?
A New Way of Thinking
We need a new way of thinking about development altogether – and one that is no more abstract than bringing a prison to town. For example, between now and 2018, (the conjectured completion date for the yet-to-be-secured prison), what if we instead focused our efforts on opening 35 new locally owned business that each employed 10 people? This would bring the same number of 350 jobs, but would have a far greater economic impact. It’s actually a safer bet than waiting and hoping for the prison to come.
Of course, it takes an incredible amount of hard work, careful planning and support from local governments to make this a reality. But to think that getting a federal prison is any easier is dead wrong. If the prison comes, it will not have been an overnight deal that brought 350 jobs. It will actually have been 15 years worth of work – the project started in 2003, and has been the primary focus of our local planning commission since. If it doesn’t come, there will be nothing to show for all that work. Development is slow and risky business, however you go about it.
That’s precisely why brave new entrepreneurs here in the mountains should get all the support we can possibly give them. A critical part of that is supporting the policies (and the people pushing them forward from the grassroots level) that will make a wide variety of businesses here in the mountains viable and competitive – like new energy policy that would keep renewable energy jobs in state, like creating a permanent coal severance tax fund that would use our assets from the past and present to build a new economy, like insuring high-speed Internet that is accessible and affordable up every hollow. Eastern Kentuckians have a wealth of good ideas. But if such enormous amounts of time and resources continue to go in a top-down process toward siting new prisons and continuing to operate the ones we already have, there will not be much left over to build anything else.
Besides building a local economy here from the ground up based on the skills and talents of people here, Central Appalachia needs — and some might even say is owed, after all the region has contributed to the national economy – support from the federal government.
It is an outrage that when our local leaders asked for help from our member of Congress, Hal Rogers, the only federal support – the only major “job creating plan” – they were offered was a 960-bed high-security prison with a 256-bed work camp. Take it or leave it. A jobs program with no guarantee of jobs, a supposed path out of poverty that requires the poverty of others – a plan that will actually make us poorer.
Why, for example, is there not a proposal on the table to invest the same amount of millions of federal dollars in a state-of-the-art drug rehabilitation center in Letcher County? A place that could give people struggling against drug addiction the quality treatment they need here at home (for a fraction of the cost of incarcerating a person for one year – on average upwards of $35,000 a year), and could theoretically employ the same number of people? A way we could work together to begin to heal one another from the drug abuse epidemic ravaging mountain communities.
Of course this is an abstraction, because that proposal does not exist. If it did, I know the Letcher County Planning Commission would be working day in and out to secure it for the county. Co-Chairmen Elwood Cornett has told me so himself, and I believe him entirely.
But at every moment, development is a choice, not predetermined. And sometimes the first step is simply refusing the terms offered – and insisting, regardless of so-called “rational thinking,” that there are more rational options. Because building a new prison here makes no sense for Letcher County, let alone when considering the proposal in the context of our nation’s out-of-control criminal justice system — a system that incarcerates a greater percentage of its own population than any other country on earth.
As we work to confront poverty in all places, connections and alliances must continue to be made between the rural and urban communities most affected by U.S. prison growth and mass incarceration. And we need to think creatively about how new models of restorative justice connect to, in the words of Dee Davis, a restoration economy. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that there are some kinds of “development” that will put us all even further behind.
Sylvia Ryerson lives in Letcher County, Kentucky, and is a journalist for WMMT 88.7 Mountain Community Radio, a project of Appalshop. She is a co-producer of “Making Connections News”, a multimedia series showcasing possibilities for a just economic transition in the coalfields of Central Appalachia.