WHITESBURG, Ky. — If it wasn’t for his family’s bond to the mountainside where he grew up, Aaron Boggs might have fled by now.
His home is Letcher County, a rugged and remote part of eastern Kentucky sustained for generations by a coal industry that now hardly exists. He remains here out of a sense of duty, but now the prospect of a big new federal project is giving him hope that the area might have an economic future after all.
The project would be a prison.
Starving for jobs, the county has asked the federal government to build a penitentiary here, on the site of an abandoned mountaintop strip mine.
“Having that kind of thing come in, it could symbolize a change in the economy and maybe turn the tide and everything will go back to what it — halfway, at least — to what it was when the coal mines were here,” Boggs, 21, said.
He works at a restaurant while completing college, and envisions himself commuting to the prison from the converted trailer where he lives with his 19-year-old wife, on land still tended by his grandfather. “Hopefully, if the prison does go in, I can get a job there and it will be secure and I’ll be making enough to provide for us where we don’t have to struggle.”
Around the country, impoverished rural communities have pursued prisons in the hope that they will deliver them from economic hardship. This began three decades ago, when America’s rush to imprison coincided with the loss of farms, factories and other traditional sources of work that bolstered rural life. The need hasn’t diminished, as rural America still seeks a path out of the Great Recession. But the exchange of land is no longer as promising what it once was.
As incarceration rates have fallen, and the country re-evaluates whether locking people up is sound criminal justice policy, many states are closing prisons, forcing rural towns that invested their futures in bars and barbed wire to find new uses for the buildings, as well as new economic engines.
Letcher County, with 22,700 people in the southern Appalachian Mountains, appears stuck with no other solution.
“In much of rural America we get our identity from what we used to do: We used to be miners, farmers, loggers, we used to work at the plant. And as that work goes away, we want to feel like we’re part of the American story and we’re making a contribution,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg that advocates for rural communities. “Politicians have just a few arrows in their quiver, and one of them is prisons, which, whether they work or not, they seem like they’re a big deal. It’s the one thing they give to rural.”
Prison as Salvation
Letcher County’s bid to be the home of America’s next federal prison stems from its willingness to try something, anything, to save itself.
“It is desperate,” said Jim Ward, the county judge/executive.
Ward has laid off or furloughed dozens of employees in the past year as taxes from the coal industry dried up. He has seen many of his constituents lose their homes, jobs and dignity. He talks to parents who see no path for their children to be successful if they remain. He has tried to diversify the local economy, fighting to bring in broadband internet service so that people can work from home. He’s helped former coal miners get retrained in other occupations, then watched them leave for jobs elsewhere.
A prison, he believes, might stanch the bleeding.
“Would it have been my first choice? Absolutely not. But it’s here,” Ward said as he finished a late dinner one December night at his son’s Whitesburg restaurant. “The money has been appropriated, and if it wasn’t built in Letcher County, it would have been built somewhere else.”
The project, first floated in 2005 and backed by a powerful congressman, calls for a high-security prison and a minimum-security prison camp on 570 acres of land at a cost of $444 million. The money has been approved by the federal Bureau of Prisons and received approval in the latest congressional spending bill, but it isn’t clear if the Trump administration is fully committed to it.
Ward and other officials pushing the project have argued that, unlike coal, prisons are a good bet because they are “recession-proof.”
That was true for a long time. But perhaps not anymore.
The number of people behind bars is steadily dropping, a trend that spans 36 states and the federal system. The decline, which began a decade ago, has been driven by a number of factors: a drastic drop in crime, state fiscal crises and a bipartisan acknowledgment of the damage wrought by mass incarceration.
Led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration has steered the government back toward stricter law enforcement and tougher sentencing. But even the Trump administration has questioned the need for another new federal prison.
That has stirred anxiety in Letcher County, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump and has grown to expect that the prison will be built. Employment agencies have advised clients to consider corrections as a career path. Economic development consultants have recommended that local businesses become certified to bid on contracts to provide food and other goods to federal prisons in the area. Owners of land at the proposed site are prepared to sell to the government, although no contracts have been executed.
There is also small but fierce opposition to the plan, driven largely by concerns over its environmental impact, its contribution to mass incarceration and its potential for “profiteering” in Appalachia, as well as doubts about the promised economic benefits. Opponents hope there is still a chance that the project ─ which would be the fourth federal prison complex in eastern Kentucky ─ is canceled.
County officials say the prison is just part of a larger plan that includes marketing the region’s natural beauty to tourists, luring tenants to its largely vacant industrial park and exploring the viability of a casino. There was a slight uptick in coal jobs at the end of 2017, and officials see hope in a proposed battery factory in neighboring Pike County. But the prison and its 300 promised jobs is the only significant economic development in Letcher.
“It’s hard to imagine people having hope in a prison, for crying out loud,” said Joe DePriest, president of the Letcher County Chamber of Commerce. “But it’s more than we have going on right now.”
Already, he said, talk of the prison has made things “a little more positive.”
‘We don’t want to leave’
Gwen Christon isn’t waiting for Letcher County’s economy to bottom out.
She has a plan, and it involves the prison.
Christon owns Isom IGA, a small grocery store she bought in 1998, when the coal business was booming and “everything was good here.”
She is the daughter of a coal miner, and the wife of one — at least, she used to be. Her husband lost his $80,000-a-year job when a nearby United Coal plant shut down in 2012, at the start of the latest industry downturn. Since then, her annual net sales have dropped from $5.1 million to about $4.4 million ─ the result, she says, of customers having less money to spend.
“And I’m not alone,” she said. “Every business has been affected in the same way.”
In the summer of 2016, not long after the federal Bureau of Prisons committed to building the prison, Christon attended a series of seminars sponsored by the Kentucky Small Business Development Center to help merchants find ways to benefit from the project. She got certified to bid on federal prison contracts and submitted a winning proposal to provide dairy products to a medical facility in Lexington.
Her profit margin was slim, but she saw an opening and has continued bidding on other jobs. She gets favorable consideration because she’s categorized as a woman-owned business, and hopes to get certified as a “disadvantaged” small business because of the economic conditions.
“I just thought that if I’m going to survive, I have to find some way to sell groceries other than the traditional two feet walking in the door,” Christon said. “The prison here could be a shot in the arm.”
But her confidence has limits. Her 21-year-old son, a college student, wants to move back home after he graduates and open a restaurant. She’s not sure he should. “I just don’t know that the opportunities are here for him,” she said.
That is what many young people in Letcher County — including those who would have gone straight to the mines out of high school — complain about. They describe being torn between staying in the place where they were raised and taking their chances elsewhere. Many endure long commutes to jobs outside the county.
“We don’t want to leave; this is home,” said Savannah Hall, 20, a college student who works as a bank teller in neighboring Pike County and whose husband is a mechanic. “Unfortunately, a lot of people have had to leave. We know people who have relocated to different states because there’s nothing around here. That’s why we hope the prison will come into play, because we need it.”
Brian Fields, who teaches criminal justice at the Whitesburg campus of Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, said a good number of his students depart the county after getting their degrees. Some speak of the prison as a place were they’d like to work.
He spoke as he drove the back roads of Letcher County, through shallow valleys where generations of families have lived, past silent coal mines and lumber crews stripping hillsides of trees.
“That’s why the prison is so important — because it’s the only shimmer of light we’ve got,” Fields said.
The cell-space bargain
For more than three decades, when the farms and factories failed them, rural Americans could always depend on prisons.
The prisons gave them jobs, and in return the government got room to lock up more people.
The bargain worked as the country shifted away from farming, mining and manufacturing and toward the service and information industries. At the same time, the war on drugs began producing waves of people sentenced to long terms behind bars. The government needed new places to put them, and hollowed-out rural communities began to see those prison projects as job-creators.
The federal Bureau of Prisons gave priority to those communities, asserting that prisons brought new economic activity, from jobs to housing to hospitals.
Since the 1980s, dozens of state and federal prisons have been built in Central Appalachia, many of them in eastern Kentucky. The construction took advantage of man-made plateaus left behind by a form of coal mining called mountaintop removal. The flattened hills sometimes became stores or golf courses, but were perfect for prisons.
To live by coal is to live with extremes: periods of breakneck growth and deep slumps. But the good times have grown less frequent. The bottom began to fall out about five years ago, with the expansion of natural gas drilling, a cheaper alternative to coal.
President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan sought to limit carbon emissions and help communities reliant on the industry retrain former miners and nurture small businesses. That transformation has yet to happen, but officials involved in local economic development say that the federal government’s investment in creating a “new economy” in Appalachia is beginning to bear fruit, in the form of tourism, health care and the arts.
In Letcher County, the coal industry employed more than 1,500 residents in 2000, and now employs about 119. As the jobs have diminished, so has the rest of the economy. With less expandable income — mining jobs typically paid $60,000 to $80,000 a year — many small businesses in Letcher County are suffering, the local government is shrinking and the schools have less money.
Laid-off miners who’ve remained are unable to find new work. The unemployment rate is consistently higher than that of Kentucky and the rest of the country, but researchers say that doesn’t account for many who have stopped seeking work altogether. The median household income is about $29,000, far lower than the state and the nation. Nearly a third of all residents live in poverty. Most of those with steady employment work in hospitals and health clinics, or for the school district, for an oil company, or at grocery stores or restaurants. But those jobs typically don’t come close to paying what the coal companies paid.
“Letcher County has sacrificed substantially to power the American economy with cheap coal and never got a lot for it,” said Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “They got jobs that were decent-paying, but with it they got environmental problems, medical problems, black lung and broken backs. And now even that has dried up. Essentially the country is letting that happen, and not doing anything about it.”
Adding to the problems are drugs. America’s opioid crisis has flourished in eastern Kentucky, where pharmaceutical companies and unscrupulous doctors pushed addictive pain medication on people who didn’t need it. Many Letcher County residents complain that a large segment of the population is idle, dependent on drugs and public-assistance checks. Letcher, along with 53 other Kentucky counties, made the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of American communities with the highest risk of a drug-related HIV outbreak. The crisis has also made Kentucky one of the few states where the prison population is rising.
Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, Letcher County’s 110-year-old weekly newspaper, said the prison proposal is part of a much older story of exploitation and poverty, of booms and busts, and of government attempts to help. In 1963, Homer Bigart, a prominent New York Times reporter, came to the area to write about the lives of local residents, and Gish’s parents gave him a tour. Bigart wrote a front-page story describing the area’s “grinding poverty,” “governmental neglect” and “the ravaging of a once-magnificent landscape.”
The stories were noticed by President John F. Kennedy, setting in motion events that led his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to initiate the War on Poverty. Billions of dollars flowed into Appalachia to pay for roads, utilities and medical care.
And yet much of what Bigart wrote could describe Letcher County today.
Asked about opponents’ claim that a federal prison could act as a drag on the economy, Gish replied, “We don’t have an economy to drag down.”
The prison project was born in 2005, when a group of business and community leaders formed the Letcher County Planning Commission, a nongovernmental organization tasked with charting a post-coal future. Someone brought up the idea of a prison. Three nearby counties already had them, thanks in large part to Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee (and its former chairman) known for his ability to bring federal projects to the district, one of the country’s poorest. The group took the idea to Rogers, and the powerful congressman backed it. Soon the prisons bureau took it up as a possibility.
A long planning process followed, and in 2015 the bureau allocated $444 million to build a high-security prison holding 960 men and a minimum-security prison camp for 256 men on 570 acres of land, including the former mining site, about seven miles west of Whitesburg. The bureau said the project would generate short-term economic benefits, in the form of construction jobs, as well as about 300 permanent jobs. That activity, according to the bureau, would “ripple” through the local economy in the form of “increased and ongoing spending for goods and services” to support the prison.
By 2015, a lot had changed. Under Obama, the government pursued policies that lowered drug penalties and prosecuted fewer nonviolent offenders, and as a result, the federal prison population began to decline. State governments were making similar moves, and the most aggressive of them were closing prisons. A new perspective on criminal justice policy began to take hold across the country, centered on reversing mass incarceration.
And yet the Bureau of Prisons, which has opened seven new prisons in the last decade, remained committed to the Letcher County project, saying the federal system was still over capacity. All that was left before acquiring land and breaking ground was a review of an environmental impact statement, and the bureau’s final “order of decision.”
The review lasted into the first year of the Trump administration, which abandoned Obama’s approach to federal law enforcement and sought to turn the focus toward tougher prosecutions. It seemed that Letcher County, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, had the ally it needed to see the prison project to completion.
But when it came time to submit a budget plan, Trump left it out.
His fiscal year 2018 budget proposal called for a drastic reduction in domestic spending, including the elimination of the Letcher County prison. In a June 2017 House Appropriations Committee hearing, Rogers confronted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who explained that the decline in federal prison populations made the Letcher County project unnecessary.
“The Bureau of Prisons just didn’t feel that we needed that facility at this time,” Rosenstein said.
Another omen came in late January, when the Justice Department ordered the bureau to slash staff and put more inmates into private prisons.
But Rogers, an old-style Republican who came of age when both parties thrived by delivering federal dollars to home districts, vowed to preserve the $444 million, which was passed into law in fiscal year 2016, though it remains tied up in negotiations with the Trump administration. Rogers sees hope in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, which does not mention cutting the money as it did for 2018.
“The future prison in Letcher County will help relieve the burden of overcrowding on the system and provide long-term employment for folks in Eastern Kentucky,” Rogers said in a statement.
The prisons bureau has continued to move forward on the project. Citing the Trump administration’s new “prosecution priorities,” the bureau made the case for the new prison in a September 2017 environmental impact statement, saying it expected the overall federal prison population to climb again this year.
Opponents of the project have cited the Trump administration’s apparent reluctance as reason to abandon it. They also accuse the prisons bureau of failing to seek other methods to reduce crowding, such as compassionate release of elderly and severely ill inmates.
“I refuse to have our community’s future built on the backs of other people,” said Elizabeth Sanders, an organizer of the Letcher Governance Project, formed in 2016 to resist the proposal.
She added, “At the same time, it’s hard, because it’s not a win if this doesn’t get built.”
Opponents also argue that federal prisons don’t necessarily help turn local economies around. They point to other eastern Kentucky counties that already host prisons and are still struggling.
But Elwood Cornett, who heads the Letcher County Planning Commission, said the group has spoken to officials in those counties and were given a positive impression.
“One told us he’d take another one,” Cornett said. “They bring jobs to local people.”
Research on that is mixed.
Some studies confirm what the boosters say: Prisons can lift local employment and, because prisoners are counted in the U.S. census as being residents of where they are locked up, deliver more population-based grant money. But other economic researchers have found that local residents are often shut out of the hiring process because they lack the required education or experience, or are too old. Over the long term, studies say, prisons may offer some reprieve from economic downturns, but may not actually offer any lasting improvement in unemployment rates or poverty levels.
John Eason, a researcher at Texas A&M University who specializes in prison building in rural America, said he has found that poorer communities are more likely to host such projects, and those that do fare better than those that do not. Poverty rates, unemployment, household incomes and home values all improve in prison towns, he said.
But a prison isn’t enough to pull a community out of economic distress.
“All of these places are bad off, and if you get a prison you’re less bad off,” Eason said.
Lee County, Virginia, just over the state line from Letcher County, is a good example. Lee is nearly identical to Letcher in many ways — demographics, economy, median income. It, too, has been reliant on coal. And more than a decade ago, it lured a federal prison to town in hopes of putting more people to work.
Today United States Penitentiary Lee is the county’s second-biggest employer, behind the school board, and pays some of the highest wages.
“I would do anything I could to get another federal prison in southwest Virginia,” said Duane Miller, executive director of the Lenowisco Planning District Commission, which covers several counties, including Lee. “They’ve been wonderful to the region, and while there were a lot of questions when it first came, we can say now, 14, 15 years down the road, we’d certainly do it again.”
But the prison employs only 378 people. Lee County’s unemployment rate remains higher than when the prison arrived in 2002.
Davis, who runs the Center for Rural Strategies, said Letcher County would be better off focusing on developing itself as a place where people would want to live while working from home, or where they can retire. That means broadband internet, good schools and health care, and more restaurants and coffee shops. It has that potential in Whitesburg, which is a stop on the Southern music circuit and is home to Appalshop, which began as a project of the War on Poverty and now runs a community radio station, a performance space and art gallery.
While Davis doesn’t doubt the prison proponents’ intentions, he sees the project as a wasted opportunity.
“It’s a sign of government trying to help, but it’s not necessarily an effective strategy,” Davis said. “It’s a bunch of generals trying to fight the last war, trying to recreate old economies in ways that in the end don’t serve the people they’re representing.”
Aaron Boggs struggles to balance his ambitions with his desire to remain in Letcher County.
Just about all the men in his family have worked the coal mines, and those that still do have chased jobs in other states. In better times, he might have done the same.
He and his wife work in restaurants and live in the small hillside home where his mother raised him, next door to his grandfather. He’s studying at Eastern Kentucky University for a bachelor’s in criminal justice, which he expects will help him start a career in law enforcement.
Boggs wants to make enough money to allow his wife to stop working at a fast-food joint, to build a new house on his grandfather’s property and to travel every now and then. But he also longs to be part of something better for Letcher County.
“That’s part of the reason I stay here,” he said. “Not only to take care of the land after papaw gets too old to work on it, but so I can provide for the economy here.”
So he dreams of a federal prison.
“I think that’s the way most people feel,” he said. “The prison really would bring something – more hope – back to the people.”
Update (April 4, 2018): On March 30, the director of the Bureau of Prisons signed a “record of decision” for the Letcher County project, allowing the construction process to move forward. The next step, the bureau said, was for the government to begin buying land at the project site, and begin discussing with local authorities upgrades to the community’s infrastructure so that it can support the prison. Hal Rogers, the congressman who has backed the project, called the announcement “a tremendous milestone for Letcher County and the surrounding area.”
Contact Jon Schuppe at firstname.lastname@example.org