Back to The State of the South

Reflections from True South Central Appalachia: The Economic and Community Impact of Incarceration in Appalachia

In April, State of the South held its third convening, True South Central Appalachia. Over two days communities gathered for candid conversations on the past, present, and future of Appalachia and to answer the question, what would the South look like if equity became a shared Southern value?

Following the event, we invited panelists and participants to reflect on their experiences.  We’re honored to share with you this reflection from James Gore, Senior Program Officer at The Just Trust.


The Economic and Community Impact of Incarceration in Appalachia

The decline of coal as the economic engine in the Central Appalachia region created a challenging prospect for policy makers and communities: How do we provide employment to our residents, and how do we support the community infrastructure which has been dependent on tax revenue? Prison construction became one solution, with 16 prisons located in the region and 8 in Eastern Kentucky alone.

This is the dynamic tackled by panelists at the MDC True South Convening in Lexington, KY. Panelists included: Natalie Cunningham, Outreach Director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy; Amelia Kirby, Project Director for Justice Revisioning Project for Appalachian Kentucky and; Dr. Judah Schept – Professor, School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Kentucky would have the 7th highest incarceration rate in the WORLD if it were its own country. After the sharp decline in incarceration in prisons and jails in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, incarceration rates are on the rise leading to overcrowding in 65% of Kentucky’s jails. This dynamic is driven by increased penalties enacted by the policymakers in Kentucky. Over a two-year legislative period in 2021 and 2022, 71 bills were passed to increase criminal penalties while only 12 new bills were enacted to decrease penalties. The resulting overcrowding is leading to less safe conditions and more trauma for both incarcerated people and employees.

As it turns out, prison construction was a false promise for the region, and didn’t even come close to offsetting the job left behind by the collapse of the coal industry. At its peak, coal employed 75,000 people; now only 4,000 people are employed by the industry. In eastern Kentucky there are approximately 7,000 correctional officer jobs, not even 1/10th of the peak coal employment and many of these jobs don’t even go to locals. Federal prisons in the region hire more people from outside the community than from the region. This is because many local residents do not meet federal requirements for age, drug testing, education, or experience.

As the coal industry has declined, so has revenue from the Coal Severance Tax which supported economic development, job creation, infrastructure and services in coal-producing counties. Counties pitch prison construction as an economic development tool as local governments pursue state and federal grant funding to support infrastructure construction of roads, wastewater treatment facilities, electrical infrastructure, and water lines in remote areas of the state where infrastructure has already been compromised by decades of coal extraction. Meanwhile, local boards of education promote new curricula and construction of gun ranges, mock courtrooms, and other training for the next generation of correctional officers. This overreliance on prison construction and infrastructure is crowding out other economic development opportunities, such as tourism.

In Letcher County, a coalition of advocates including landowners, environmental activists, and incarcerated people have battled against the development of a new $500 million maximum security federal prison because of the environmental harm that would result in its construction. Advocates have also cited the decline in the federal prison population to make the case that a new facility is unnecessary. In the wake of devastating floods in the region in 2022, this same investment could be designated towards critical infrastructure needs such as housing and other supports for people impacted by storms, investment in flood resilience and prevention, and the funding of child care, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and public health supports. Despite these ongoing needs and in the wake of catastrophic flooding resulting in the deaths of 40 people in the region, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has restarted efforts to build a prison in a flood zone of Letcher County.

Despite these challenges, new opportunities have emerged to address front-end drivers of incarceration in the region. In 2022, the Kentucky legislature approved a pilot program to include several Eastern Kentucky communities to divert people with substance use disorder and mental health issues into community-based treatment outside the carceral system. A coalition of organizations including the ACLU Smart Justice Advocate, American Friend Service Committee, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, West Virginia Budget and Tax Center, and others have worked together to advocate for this legislation. This type of practical solution represents one opportunity to shift the dynamics of incarceration in a region hit hard by the national opioid crisis.

For more information on this topic see:

KY Center for Economic Policy: Facts Don’t Support Economic Argument for Proposed Federal Prison in Letcher County.

The Careral Conjecture in Central Appalachia by Judah Schept