For four decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive. 1
This essay centers on the US as the most prolific (and dangerous) producer of carceral knowledge and practice in the world. The US, where more people are incarcerated in some individual states than many individual countries, is the laboratory of carceral “innovation,” a grand experiment in human immiseration whose findings are exported across the globe. 2 The prison-building industry is, like so many other phenomena examined in Field Notes, globalized. Yet, within the US there are sacrifice zones of carceral experimentation, California, Louisiana, and, the subject of this essay, Central Appalachia, where these experiments transform the landscape from the prison to the body.
- 2See Julia Sudbury’s descriptions of how the US exported the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs to the United Kingdom in Jula Sudbury, “Celling Black Bodies: Black Women in the Global Prison Industrial Complex.” Feminist Review 80 (2005), https://www.jstor.org/stable/3874373; see also, the spread of private prisons from the US to South Africa, New Zealand, The United Kingdom, and Austrailia in Cody Mason, “International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization,” The Sentencing Project (2013), https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/International-….
We turn to Central Appalachia, because nowhere else is it clearer that the story of global mass incarceration is also a climate story–and that they are not two stories that happen to occur in the same place–they are mutually constructive ideologies of global racism capitalism, gender discrimination, and climate colonialism. It is a story of coal and the carceral state.
More than 1.5 million acres of abandoned mine lands pock the undulating landscapes of Appalachia. In its shorn mountaintops and slag-filled valleys, the specter of the region’s long-declining coal industry is literally infused into its place and its people—in the prevalence of human death and disease from toxic exposure to mining and processing coal, in the leachate-filled waterways and aquifers downstream from the mines, and in the dwindling biodiversity that accompanies mountaintop removal. Sometimes described as an internal colony, Appalachia has long been a site of extraction and disposal in the US. 4 Settler land theft in the 18th century gave way to industrialized timber plantations in the 19th century, some of which still operate today. 5 As the timber industry shifted south and west to chase ever larger and deregulated commodity landscapes, the coal industry emerged and came to dominate Appalachia throughout the 20th century. 6 Rather than embark upon a national effort to remediate and otherwise invest in the toxic lands of Appalachia, domestic policy-makers have spent the last half-century pursuing a divest and depopulate agenda in the region 7 —the costs of undoing the damage wrought by the timber and coal industries deemed too large, the people living there deemed too unimportant.
- 3This essay is adapted from earlier research from Technical Lands: A Primer edited by Jeffrey Nesbit and Charles Walheim, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- 4Sam Adler-Bell, “Appalachia vs. the Carceral State,” New Republic, 25 November 2019, available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/155660/appalachia-coal-mining-mountaint….
- 5John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachia Valley, Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1982).
- 6Karida Brown, Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2019).
- 7Tarence Ray, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia,” The Baffler, September 2019, available at: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/hollowed-out-ray.
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 extractive process known as mountaintop removal. 8
- 8Brett Story, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2019).
As a result, the region remains one of the poorest in the U.S., with so-called “diseases of despair” like opioid addiction at or near the highest rates in the country.
In their essay on the rise of the carceral state as an economic development fix, Ryerson and Schept write that “since the 1980s, 350 new prisons have been built in rural areas...this is what we are told to expect and believe is the last hope for poor rural areas around the country, especially in Appalachia.”
In this context of decades-long precarity and cratering local economies, “Prison growth in Central Appalachia is part of a dramatic trend in rural prison siting across the US...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.”
In Appalachia, many of those detention spaces are built atop the abandoned mine lands of the now-defunct coal industry. Together, the coalfield prisons of Appalachia represent some of the most technically precise and surveilled landscapes in the world.
The prison-building atop abandoned mines complex of Appalachia is driven by major subsidies: namely, the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program created by the Surface Mining Control and Remediation Act of 1977. Meanwhile, the land remediation requirements on AML sites are far less stringent for housing incarcerated people on the site than they would be for almost any other residential use. 12 Along with prairie grass plantings and indefinite abandonment, prison-building is now one of the most common forms of AML remediation in the region; it is by far the most capital intensive of the three. In Central Appalachia, every economic development incentive is stacked to incentivize building hell on a hill.
This Appalachian noir can be understood, at least in part, by viewing the half-century long policy of depopulation through divestment in the region and the 20-year investment in prison-driven economic development as synonymous forces. Central Appalachia is a largely forgotten landscape, underfunded and abandoned by federal policymakers. To borrow once again from Story, that half-century program of depopulation through divestment created a series of spatial, social, and economic voids in the region. These voids then created the conditions for a regional economic development program organized around the carceral system to emerge—one that promised to literally and metaphorically fill those voids with prisons facilities and jobs. Today, the region is now home to one of the largest carceral archipelagos in the world. As Story writes,
To view them in this way is to see an invisible region powered by an invisible industry. For Central Appalachia, this invisibility relates to the region’s status as a resource hub for the rest of the world. The exploding mountains and buried streams of one extractive regime have been replaced by detention facilities. Both rely on the logics of extraction and disposal to operate. Both have long over-promised and under-delivered in Appalachia. Or, as Martin Arboleda describes it, the region operates as part of “a dense network of territorial infrastructures and spatial technologies” 13 intentionally obscured from the public and yet integral to the construction and operation of contemporary urbanism—in this case through the cheap electricity that the region’s coalfields provide. For the prisons themselves, rendering incarcerated people as invisible is necessary to upholding the industry itself. Prisons shifted from menacing, highly visible sites of public punishment into their contemporary forms in part to quell growing movements for reform and decarceration that accompanied prior eras of prison-building in the US. Siting these prisons in remote locations using non-descript forms on highly-surveilled compounds ensures their invisibility to the broader public. This is central to the carceral project—to frame prison-building as a recession-proof economic boom for regions like Central Appalachia, and to render the facilities and those inside invisible and thus removed from scrutiny.
- 9Christine Schalkoff, et al., “The opioid and related drug epidemics in rural Appalachia: A systematic review of populations affected, risk factors, and infections diseases,” Substance Abuse, 41(1): 35-69.
- 10Sylvia Ryerson and Judah Schept, “Building Prisons in Appalachia,” Boston Review, 28 April 2018, available at: http://bostonreview.net/law-justice/sylvia-ryerson-judah-schept-buildin….
- 11Brett Story, Prison Land.
- 12Sam Adler-Bell, “Appalachia vs. the Carceral State,” The New Republic, 25 November 2019, available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/155660/appalachia-coal-mining-mountaint….
- 13 Martin Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism, Verso (New York: 2020).
The U.S. operates the largest archipelago of jails and penitentiaries in the world. And yet, it can be hard to find the prison in today's landscape. Prisons are, after all, by design and definition, spaces of disappearance. They disappear the people inside of them. And they are themselves increasingly disappeared from the dense social spaces where many of us live and move around. 14
- 14Brett Story, Prison Land.
In Appalachia, the immiseration of settler colonialism sublimated into the immiseration of fossil fuel infrastructure, and is now rescued by the immiseration of the prison-industrial complex. While the coal prisons of Appalachia are critical sites for understanding the relationship between settler colonialism, resource extraction, and racial capitalism, they are also critical sites in the fights for prison abolition, a just energy transition, and the realization of an internationalist Green New Deal. This is because the coal prisons of Appalachia teach us of the intertwined threads of colonialism, climate crisis, and racial capitalism–and to resist and transform these landscapes is to resist and transform its architects.
These spaces also teach us that an internationalist Green New Deal without abolition is not just. As Purdham, Rucker Thomas, Williams, Dixon, and Jacobs say: “No Justice, No Resilience.”
To fight the Climate Crisis, the built environment must be adapted from live to work to play. But to change the built environment alone (as Appalachia has exchanged coalfields from prisons) does not justice make–and to leave these changes in the hands of those who profited off building immiseration to begin with would be folly. 16 Those who build (in many ways), and seek to build a better world must seek transformation of the systems that allowed this ecological, social, and physical harm to happen. An internationalist Green New Deal calls for everyday, everywhere transformation from the hills and hollers of Appalachia to the globe!
- 15This conception of transformation is indebted to the concepts of transformative justice where the root causes of violence and harm are faced without causing more violence and harm. See Barnard Center for Research of Women’s Transformative Justice Series: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhSpqfRmMddSIjX7a-__IkmNAiNiLu_3j.
- 16Many of those facilities were designed by firms highlighted in the “Global Design Praxis” section of this project—particularly AECOM and HOK, perhaps the two most dominant firms in the prison-designing industry (often housed in firm portfolio’s under sections titled “Justice” projects). As a recent report from the Buell Center argues, this raises real questions about who should be called upon to build the kinds of just, post-carbon futures than at internationalist Green New Deal demands