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Prisons of Appalachia: Kentucky town hopes new facility can boost economy

Many areas struggling with decline of coal industry count on correction projects to increase employment

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Appalachia has been battling a dry spell. But the drought isn’t in rain; there has been plenty of that lately. It’s a job drought.

This is an area where coal was king — and still is — but its power isn’t what it once was.

Letcher County, Kentucky, is typical of the region. In 1988 a quarter of Letcher’s workers were employed in coal-related jobs, comprising 1,679 positions. Today the number has dwindled to 271, making up just 8.6 percent of the workforce, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment’s annual energy report.

But many people in Letcher think they have found a cure: a planned federal prison slated for an old coal mining site outside Whitesburg.

The omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress in December earmarked $444 million for a new federal prison, and since the only site under consideration for a facility by the Bureau of Prisons is in Letcher, most locals are hopeful.

The proposed prison will house approximately 1,000 inmates. The Letcher County facility would join four large federal prisons in eastern Kentucky, in Clay, Martin, McCreary and Boyd counties. A federal medical prison facility is in Lexington, and there are also prisons nearby in western Virginia.

Brent Vance, 23, is one of the luckier young people in Whitesburg. He owns and operates a successful barbershop in the downtown area, which has its share of empty storefronts but still manages to be picturesque. “This whole area is struggling economically. A lot of people have lost their jobs all over eastern Kentucky,” he said.

A barber learns an area’s social and political pulse one lock of hair at a time. So how does the local populace feel about a proposed prison coming to town? “I’ve heard not one person against it. Everyone is for it,” he said.

He is a coal miner’s son, and his father has managed to hang on to this $30-an-hour job.

‘This whole area is struggling economically. A lot of people have lost their jobs all over eastern Kentucky.’

Brent Vance

barbershop owner in Whitesburg

Despite the hemorrhaging of jobs, the local economy is still largely dependent on coal. A pizzeria on Hazard’s main street stays open 24/7 to serve hungry miners. A sign on the door proclaims, “We support our miners.” A local breakfast diner advertisers a miner’s sandwich: egg served on Texas toast with bacon and sausage.

But the Center for Rural Strategies, headquartered on Whitesburg’s main street, is one of the few dissenting local voices opposing the correction facility. “It doesn’t work,” said Dee Davis, the center’s president. “Prisons have become de facto rural policy in America. The reality is those poor places in eastern Kentucky [that] thought bringing a prison in would turn their prospects around have been disappointed.”

“Look at Clay County, McCreary County … It sounds like a lot of money you are bringing into the county, but there are people lined up to produce the construction, supplies, even to work the jobs, and though there are some benefits to host communities, they are pretty slim. The benefits are often tied up with making a profit off the families of prisoners who live far, far away,” she said.

Davis points to unemployment, which has remained stubbornly high in counties that have prisons. Letcher County’s unemployment as of 2015 was at 11.8 percent, and Clay County, home to the Federal Correction Institute at Manchester, was at 10.3 percent.

Joe DePriest is the president of Letcher County’s Chamber of Commerce and respectfully disagrees with Davis. “I am 100 percent for the federal prison locating here in Letcher County. I don’t see a downside. I see it as a favorable thing. Of course, if you didn’t have people committing crimes, that would be the best-case scenario. I’d be all for that,” he said.

He said the county’s industrial park was a key element in weaning the economy off coal, with its variety of industries employing over 300 people. But then the Great Recession blew in, knocking down employment there to approximately 100.

“I feel like a large portion of people here have lost hope for the future and for living where they actually want to live. Losing hope is a bad thing. So I think the prison gives them something to cling to,” DePriest said, adding that if the prison arrives, maybe some related industries will follow. 

“We have had projections of jobs — 350 to 450 jobs in the prison and another 300 to 400 jobs from related industries. Theoretically, this could bring in 500, 600, 700 jobs, with an annual payroll of $25 [million] to $30 million a year,” he said. He hopes that with more money coursing through the county, maybe some of the empty storefronts will fill with businesses.

He said Letcher County has learned from other counties in the area that may not have fully capitalized on their prisons. 

But Davis isn’t sold. “Everyone is looking for some magical solution to turn things around. If a prison would work, I’d be all for it. Instead, we are the prisoners of the prisoners,” she said, pointing to the lack of economic revitalization that accompanies a prison. 

Meanwhile, Panagioti Tsolkas, the director of the Human Rights Defense Center’s prison ecology project, has vowed to file suit to block any planned prison, on the basis of its environmental impact. He added that federal incarceration rates are declining, so a new prison isn’t needed. 

But DePriest believes that there really isn’t much choice but to move forward and that those opposed are short on offering alternatives. “Our choices have been limited. At this point, we don’t see a lot of other possibilities. We are just thankful where we are on the progress of the thing. We think it is getting closer and closer and in the next six months we’ll get some firm dates as to when construction will begin,” he said.

Area residents can only hope that the prison walls will be strong enough to free them from some of the economic confinement that they have endured.

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