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Just a few months after a thousand-year-flood devastated parts of East Kentucky, the Federal Bureau of Prisons revived a plan to build a new medium-security prison and adjoining prison camp in Letcher County.
Expected to cost over half a billion dollars, the proposed project would be the most expensive prison in U.S. history. It would also receive more funding than the total earmarked for flood relief in Eastern Kentucky, Sylvia Ryerson and Dr. Judah Schept point out in an op-ed for the New York Times.
Building the prison would “add insult to an already injured region,” Ryerson and Schept argue. While residents of the region say they are desperate for affordable housing and updated infrastructure, their leaders have instead chosen to invest in yet another prison project—an economic strategy that has been thoroughly debunked by both academic studies and the continued impoverishment of prison-hosting counties in Appalachia.
“I just think there’s something really pernicious about building prison cells over homes,” Ryerson said. “That’s what we’re investing in as a society at a fundamental level.”
In this episode of Everywhere Radio, Ryerson, and Schept talk with guest host Anya Slepyan about the prisons, coal, and abolition in Central Appalachia.
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Check out our guest’s bios below, and continue on to the full transcript if you’d like to read it all.
About Our Guests
Sylvia Ryerson is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at Yale University, with a Master’s concentration in the public humanities. Prior to graduate school she worked as an independent radio producer, and at the Appalshop media arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. There she served as a reporter and the director of public affairs programming, and co-directed Appalshop/WMMT-FM’s Hip Hop from the Hilltop & Calls from Home radio show, a nationally-recognized weekly radio program broadcasting music and toll-free phone messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated, as well as Making Connections News, a multimedia community storytelling project documenting efforts for a just transition from coal extraction.
Her research questions build from this work and are rooted at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and art. In 2013, Ryerson wrote about prisons for the Daily Yonder and recently published an op/ed “Eastern Kentucky Needs Flood Relief, Not Another Federal Prison” in the New York Times, which she co-wrote with Judah Schept.
Judah Schept is a Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia (New York University Press, 2022) and Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion (New York University Press, 2015. He is co-editor of The Jail is Everywhere: Fighting the New Geography of Mass Incarceration (Verso Books, 2024). He holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a BA from Vassar College.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Welcome to Everywhere Radio, where we spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and their allies are building a more inclusive nation. I’m Anya Slepian sitting in for Whitney Kimball Coe, and today’s guests are Sylvia Ryerson and Judah Schept. Sylvia Ryerson is a multimedia artist, organizer and PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. For over a decade, her work, rooted at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and art, has probed the overlapping crises of racialized mass incarceration, rural economic abandonment, and environmental destruction. She is also the director of a new documentary Calls from Home, which documents WMMT.FM’s longstanding radio show that sends familial messages of love over public airwaves to reach people incarcerated in Central Appalachia. Judah Schept is a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. His most recent book is Coal Cages Crisis, the Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia. He has been active with numerous organizations and campaigns centered on decarceration, criminalization, and abolition. Sylvia and Judah, welcome, and thanks so much for coming on Everywhere Radio.
Great to be here, Anya. Thank you for having us.
Thanks so much, Anya. Great to be with you both.
Yeah, I’m super excited about this episode, as I said before. And so I’d like to start out with just some context for our listeners who may not be scholarly experts in the field of carceral studies. So just to start out, I was wondering, Judah, could you talk a bit about the carceral landscape in central Appalachia and how we got here? And then sort of explain how prisons are related to coal.
Sure. Yeah. I think most people are probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept or the term of mass incarceration. It’s been one of those terms that’s gained in some popularity over the last 10 or 15 years or so. And usually, when we talk about mass incarceration, we talk about the sheer volume of people who are incarcerated in the United States, as we should. That’s something like 2.2 million people. The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world. We have something like 22% of the world’s prisoners, but we couldn’t achieve that really troubling distinction without a lot of places in which to incarcerate people like prisons and jails.
And as we’ve built out this system of mass incarceration, we have built literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new prisons in the United States, the majority of them in rural communities. Now that’s occurred in lots of rural places around the country, but it’s occurred in a really concentrated way, in a few particular rural regions of the United States, one of which is central Appalachia. So there are 16 prisons in the region. Half of those 16 are in eastern Kentucky. And the majority of all of those 16, including the ones in eastern Kentucky, have been built in the last, say, four decades of mass incarceration since about the early 1990s.
And they’ve largely been built by appealing to this idea that they can serve as, or stimulate rural economic development. It’s a compelling argument because of the decline of coal. And we can talk about the specifics of that, the specifics of both, but it’s really crucial to say upfront and probably throughout the interview that it’s a really dubious, if not outright kind of disingenuous argument that they in fact provide this kind of rural jobs program or other kinds of economic development.
They really largely do not do that. They’ve become compelling because of both really precipitous declines in employment in the coal industry and precipitous declines in coal production. And with coal, the declines in coal production, the loss of coal severance tax money, which has traditionally been used to help with all kinds of revenue for co-producing counties. And so the prisons are really positioned to kind of fill in both those ways for the loss of employment and the loss of revenue. And that’s kind of how we got here, the dramatic decline of coal and the pivot to something else that could try and fulfill its footprint even as it fails to do so.
Thank you for that explanation. Something else that I’ve been wondering is sort of looking at both of your work, a phrase that’s really central to it is racial capitalism, and I’m wondering if you could give us a primer on what that means and how it’s related to mass incarceration.
So racial cap… When we talk about racial capitalism, we’re really following the lead of scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Cedric Robinson and Laura Polito, people who of course analyze our world system of capitalism over the last four or 500 years. But in doing so, also point to this kind of central foundational component of it, which is racialization, which is really the production of difference along the lines that often become this thing we call race, that really serve to kind of differentiate and degrade some people at the expense of others. It’s crucial to sort of point out as these people do, the people to whom Sylvia and I are both indebted for thinking through that concept, that racial capitalism or that the racializing work of capitalism was really foundational in places like across Europe and in between people who today we might recognize as both being white, but where racialization was sort of integrated and utilized to differentiate, say between the English and the Irish, something like that.
It becomes, I think, really important to still rely on the term in central Appalachia even sometimes when we’re talking about communities that are largely, if not almost exclusively white, to think about the work of capitalism as always pivoting on or using racialization to perform this kind of work of differentiation and subjugation, whether we’re talking nationally about how we think about and imagine Appalachia as almost like a different kind of whiteness. You know, there’s all kinds of epithets that speak to that, or we’re talking about the sort of racial violence that mass incarceration enacts and the ways that, let’s say, largely white, if not… Almost exclusively white communities in eastern Kentucky are being asked to be deputized into those institutions to perform this kind of, what scholars call guard labor, to in prison and control people with whom frankly they share a whole lot in common under capitalism, but who are of course a much more sort of multiracial population.
So I think for us it’s a really important concept to, of course speak to the political economy that is the context for thinking about mass incarceration and the constitutive or foundational role of racism and the production of race within capitalism.
Sylvia, do you want to add to that or are you good?
That was excellent. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s just what Judah said at the very end there I think is really crucial to the issue of prison expansion in the way that people are being recruited to become invested in another population’s dispossession. And it creates this framing of a sort of zero-sum of proposing that to get… This is proposing a solution that to purportedly alleviate the poverty of some through incarcerating others, which is… In that framework you see the process of racialization being happening, creating which categories are subject to that. And yeah, so I think this area gives us really a way to see racial capitalism as a process that is happening and being perpetuated through building these prisons in ways that work directly against the kind of solidarities that we really are interested in building.
And sort of speaking to that, something that I’ve been really interested in, and I know that this is important to both of your work too, is the ways that hosting a prison can change a community. There’s rightfully a huge amount of scholarship about the process of being incarcerated and for the people on the inside of the prison, but when prisons are built or populated in, whether in rural or urban places, that also affects that community. And so I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about that, how does, and in your work, how have you seen changes in communities from prisons that are built there?
Sadly, this is now an experience that’s common and familiar to many rural communities across the country, as Judah mentioned. I mean, we know that since 1980, over 350 prisons have been built in rural communities. And so I think a lot has been learned in that time too about the process by which these prisons are brought and also the impacts of having them. And I think it’s different in every location, but I mean I think this is why the term that Judah writes about in his book, Cold Cages in Crisis, carceral social reproduction is how you see these entire communities kind of hinging their entire sort of futurity and infrastructure and education system towards this particular kind of labor and institution. So I think we’ve seen, to give some specific examples, there’s been an increase in criminal justice programs in the region, as methods to, or as means to try to channel people into having jobs in these facilities in ways that I think are really, really troubling.
And I think that in addition to, I mean, on so many levels, I mean, I also think we’ve seen the social harms that come with having a prison in one’s community. Studies have shown increased rates of domestic violence, drug abuse, addiction, divorce rates, just that these are really traumatic jobs to hold and often create PTSD for people who are in those positions. So I think you can sort of, any sector in terms of education, economics, social infrastructure, you see how these communities start orienting themselves towards transitioning from one mono-economy of coal to the idea that the prison will now serve that center, and a new mono-economy centered around a prison.
The other thing that happens is that the prisons themselves are not guaranteed. One of the arguments that prison boosters use to cite a prison is that they’re so-called recession proof, that they wouldn’t necessarily close the way a factory would or a coal mine might.
And that’s just also patently not true. Mass incarceration is dynamic. It grew really recently and rapidly, and in some places it’s transitioned in various ways. And there’s concrete examples of this. If you look at upstate New York, rural New York, which built out almost 50 prisons in the same period we’re talking about in Central Appalachia, the vast majority of the state’s prisons built during that period, a number of those, I want to say almost a dozen, have now closed because the state has made some efforts to reduce its reliance on incarceration that has left those communities, which have also seen the decline of small farms, the loss of agriculture, the loss of land, the loss of the industry. It’s resulted in those communities which had attached their identities and economies to the prison, now sort of left once again kind of out luck because the prison has closed and departed.
On the one hand, like you’re saying, these prisons are sold as economic development, as stable jobs that people can have. And at the same time around the country, there’s this huge labor shortage in prisons. There are, I mean, in some states like Texas, there are dozens of prisons with over 50% vacancy rates in their corrections officers, which are, that’s insane. And so even if these prisons are being sold as providing jobs, are they jobs that people ultimately want to take and are sustainable for them to keep?
Sylvia Ryerson :
I think if you’re thinking about a community that is in the midst of a massive economic transition and crisis that has really high rates of unemployment, and there is really a desire and a need for meaningful and purposeful work, if you just step back and think about, well, how do we create that? What would be a meaningful way for people to find labor that connects them to their community, that builds on their heritage, that is skills that they can continue to build from prior work? That, I mean, all of these things that if we think about how you would want to build a different kind of economy in a region, the prison is the opposite of creating a jobs program that suits the needs of the communities where these prisons are being built. And just off the bat, I mean for federal prisons, they’re the most competitive jobs to get.
And so many people in these communities are automatically disqualified from even being eligible to even apply. Just to share a little bit about the job requirements, what we found in McCrery County, Kentucky, which is very similar to where the prison is being proposed right now in Letcher County, it was very late in the process that it was even made clear to the community what the job requirements would be, but just to share what they would… What they are for that, what they were in McCrery County at that time, it was that 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 to have a clean credit history and no criminal record. All new hires would have to be younger than 38 years old because of hazardous work laws that require federal prison employees to retire at the age of 57. And you have to be able to work 20 years to earn a full pension. There would be a rigorous physical exam, an interview process, and county residents would be given no preference in the hiring process, and a four-year college degree. And previous institutional experience was highly recommended.
So if you think about just that, the incredibly difficult application process, that’s not what you bring to a community that is in this moment of really difficult transition. So I think that’s a really crucial point, is that a lot for the federal prisons, these end up paying people not from the community who take the positions.
I think that being said, I think there’s a lot of more to say about what happens when people do get these jobs, which I touched on a little bit earlier. But I think what we’ve seen in eastern Kentucky is that in some ways the fact that we have these case studies of prior federal prisons that were built and didn’t have the impact that people hoped they would, there’s an impetus to say, well, now we’ll do better this time. We’ll have more people prepared for these jobs. We’ll make sure there’s housing and et cetera. But then it gets us into this exact idea of how we’re reorganizing the community to make sure people get these really difficult to get federal jobs. And then these jobs themselves have huge health and mental health consequences for people who work in them.
Whitney Kimball Coe:
We’ll be right back after this from the Daily Yonder.
Hi, I’m Anya Slepyan with the Daily Yonder. Check out the Yonder Report, a weekly podcast, rounding out the latest rural news. Produced by the Daily Yonder and Public News Service. You can listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Whitney Kimball Coe:
And now back to Everywhere Radio.
I know that this was mentioned in Judah’s new book, and also you all published an op-ed in the New York Times recently talking about the USP Letcher proposed project. And something that you all pointed out, which I thought was super interesting and important was that the proposed prison project is a lot more money than the county or the area was getting for flood relief after there were these absolutely devastating floods last July. And from my understanding, the project had been proposed, it had been fought, it had been killed and is now being revived. So if y’all could talk about what’s going on with that.
It as early as 2005 is when Letcher County first began efforts to cite a prison thanks to Hal Rogers, the congressional representative for all of Eastern Kentucky, who has already brought three prisons to the region, gained momentum in about 2015. And with the beginning of this process that all big federal construction projects have to go through, an environmental review process, and that also kind of coalesced a lot of opposition to the prison. At that time, what was proposed was something called United States Penitentiary Letcher or USP Letcher, a maximum security prison that I think would’ve incarcerated either 1,200 or 1,400 maximum security prisoners on a mountaintop removal site in Lecher County. Sylvia, myself and a bunch of other people were involved in kind of a number of different strategies to oppose that prison, challenging it on environmental grounds. People in Letcher County were doing incredible organizing against it to really reframe the economic argument. Local landowners were pushing against it.
And all of this resulted in its eventual defeat in 2019 with withdrawal by the Bureau of Prisons of something called a record of decision. And then just three years later, and as you said, Anya, just two months after the July 2022 floods, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that they were, the agency was resuming its efforts to cite and build a prison in Letcher County. This time they’ve adjusted the security level down a little bit. So now it’s in a federal correctional institution, which is just a medium security prison. It’s more or less the same proposal. It’s more or less grounded in the same arguments about employment and rural development.
I think to us, it’s all the more egregious and arrogant on the heels of the devastating floods, the continued ongoing kind of catastrophe in the region, in terms of people being without homes, the lack of development and employment and housing and all of that. So where I, where it stands at the moment is it’s been the Federal Bureau of Prisons is probably in the process of preparing the first round of an environmental impact statement. Sylvia, myself, and again, a whole bunch of other people, very much including a lot of people in Eastern Kentucky, are in the process of thinking about how to go about opposing it again and doing so in a way that demands something better for Eastern Kentucky. What Eastern Kentuckians deserve.
Yeah, I mean something that, because we’ve been doing a lot of coverage of the flooding in its aftermath. And something that I find really remarkable is that, sort of everyone, I mean there are a lot of compounding crises happening, but everyone that we’ve talked to says that their biggest concern is housing. And so presumably, this site that they have is flat land that can be developed that’s out of the floodplain. And that is something that is in really short supply and really critical to sustaining communities in eastern Kentucky right now. And to have that sort of taken up by the footprint of what I assume would be a massive prison, I find really, yeah, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Well said. I mean, it’s egregious. There was a really important study that just came out from our friends at the Ohio River Valley Institute in Appalachian Citizens Law Center, and they looked into this very issue around housing and they estimated that it would cost between $450 to $950 million to rebuild the approximately 9,000 homes that were damaged during the flood. And that gap between $450 and $950 million depends on how many homes are built, relocated to less flood-prone areas. So I mean, this is what’s so devastating about this prison proposal is that if we could, I mean, this is the low end of what it would take to rebuild the houses that are so needed in this region. And I just think there’s something really pernicious about building prison cells over homes. That that’s what we’re investing in as a society at a fundamental level. It’s quite stark and clear at this moment in the county of where we want to imagine that bodies go in our society.
I think one detail of this that I’m not sure we mentioned is that the projected construction cost of the prison alone is about $500 million, half a billion. So on the low end of that continuum that Sylvia named of the cost to repair or rebuild these 9,000 homes that have been damaged. So it is this, I mean, it’s all the things we just laid out, but especially I think when you recognize that we’re talking about a choice here, and spending the same amount of money and from a finite pool or whatever, and recognizing that at the moment at least, various politicians are electing to spend half a billion dollars on a prison, that we have to also say the Bureau of Prisons itself says is unnecessary.
So when I was sort of reading the conclusion of your book, I came across this phrase, which you mentioned, abolitionist geography, and you, I’ll just read what you wrote about it, because I think it’s easier than trying to explain it myself. So you wrote abolitionist geography, a material and ideological terrain connected across time to earlier struggles in Appalachia and across space to other contemporary social movements, and mobilized the plot, both a different story and a different vision for the region. Which I think is, one, beautiful, and two, I would just sort of like to talk about what might that look like in Eastern Kentucky and what might that look like elsewhere across America? Just some more… Something… And talking about what people can do when faced with the situation like the one in Letcher County.
To me, it’s really exciting to think about this on this podcast and with other rural communities because I think that prison host communities have a huge role to play in creating exactly what Judah was writing about as abolition geographies. And so I think it’s a really exciting question to think about what is the role and what can people do in a community where there is a prison to build different sets of relations, specifically most directly with the people both incarcerated in their community and with their families who are often very far away. And I think this varies in different locations, this varies between jails and prisons, but the situation in Appalachia is that people are often from very far away locations in both the federal and the state system. And I think one thing that needs to be said also about this federal proposal is that the Bureau of Prison’s policy allows people to be incarcerated up to 500 miles… Within 500 miles of their primary residence to the extent possible.
So it’s not even a guarantee that you will be incarcerated within 500 miles, only if there are beds available within 500 miles. And to be clear, 500 miles is halfway across the eastern coast of the United States. And so this prison proposal would fall within the mid-Atlantic region of the BOP, which means people could be incar- sent all the way from DC to Memphis, Tennessee, from Memphis to… And this is a county that has no public transportation system. It’s extremely hard to get there.
And so I think something I’ve really learned being an organizer in Letcher County is kind of the possibilities of building connections with people from different areas. And so a lot of that for me came through the calls from Home Radio Show that has been existing at Apple Shop now for over two decades. And that is a weekly Monday night radio program that provides a toll-free number for families who have loved ones incarcerated in the area to call in and leave a phone message that’s then broadcast out over the airwaves to reach their loved ones in prison. And when I was hosting that show, we would regularly get calls from people from California, from Florida, from Indiana, from Oregon, from the next county over.
And it was a way to, for me, realize the scope of who was being impacted by this prison in the community that I was living in. And that’s a way, building those connections as to a way to really build connections across these carceral geographies to actually figure out new kinds of solidarities and ways we can confront the system. And I think in the most direct way, that the prison system is designed to separate people, it’s designed to separate communities, it’s designed to separate families. And so I think to me, a lot of the work of building abolitionist geographies is forging connections, the connections that the system is doing everything it can to block.
Sylvia, I’m so glad that you mentioned calls from home. I’ve been to talk about your documentary. I watched it. It was absolutely fabulous. Everything from the voices, the animations, I mean, it was beautiful. I was crying in my living room. My roommates were like, what are you doing? And I’m like, I’m watching fantastic documentary. It was really stunning.
Yeah, thank you, Anya. I mean, something I think is really exciting to be doing this work right now with the coalition and with Judah’s book that’s just out and with this film is thinking about all the different registers in which we need to confront the system. One of my goals in working on that project was to try to open up a space about how to think about what rural prison expansion is and means differently, in addition to the analytical and economic arguments that are crucial, and we need to debunk to think about the impact this has on families and people incarcerated there. Because those, that experience is basically almost always absent from the dominant media coverage of prison boosterism of bringing a prison to town. But when we can really get to know families and these situations, and it allows for a different understanding of how not only will this prison help our community in the ways that it really desperately needs help, but it is a kind of purported help that is built on the suffering of other people. And that needs to be recognized.
We’re coming up on 20 years that officials have been trying to build a prison despite all evidence against the economic strategy of rural prison building, to say nothing of it, ignoring all of the sort of human suffering that Sylvia’s filmed depict so beautifully. And what this person said to, I think both Sylvia and I in an interview was like, they could have been doing anything else in that 20 years. They could have been pursuing all kinds of other development opportunities, housing, whatever you want to call it, or however we could potentially imagine it, and they time and time again, choose to invest in this… Totally, yeah, I don’t know. Disingenuous strategies.
Yeah, no, and like you all said, that’s especially evident when there’s such a stark crisis going on after the floods and then this is still the solution. So just to pivot a little bit before I let you all go, there’s a question that we always like to ask our guests at the end of the podcast, and that is, what are you reading, watching, or listening to recently that is inspiring you or just making you happy? Doesn’t have to be your favorite thing, just something that you’re enjoying right now.
So I’ve been watching Sylvia’s film a lot, which I would highly recommend to everybody. It’s incredible. I cry every time, full stop. I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs too, which bring me a lot of happiness. I’ve been reading. I just finished the Over Story, which is an incredible book. And a book by Kentucky author about the real kind of gendered and sexualized violence of life in the coal camps. The book is called The Price of Bread and Shoes. Super highly recommend it. And I’ve been listening to Matt Heckler’s new album. He’s a fiddle and banjo player. I forget from where, but it’s a beautiful artist and highly recommend him as well.
That’s awesome. All right. I’m going to follow Judah’s lead. Yeah, in terms of watching, I’ve just been, I have to… I’ve just been re-watching the final edit of this film because we’re still making final switch changes to the text cards and the credits, and so I’m just sort of obsessively checking every aspect of it. So I’m really excited to take a break from watching it. But we actually have a new edit that I’m very excited about. And in terms of books, I actually have been reading very slowly, actually sort of on and off since I spent last summer in Harlan County, Braiding Sweet Grass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I really love and I think is really inspiring to this fight, to thinking about, just new ways of relating to the land and centering that in the work that we’re doing.
And then actually, I’m really excited lately, I’ve been listening to the latest new album, I think it came out last year from the Local Honeys, which is everyone’s Kentucky Favorite. And I’m super psyched because part of the reason I just started listening to it is because I just signed up to take Montana’s intermediate banjo class at Cowen Creek Music School in Letcher County this summer, which I highly recommend to anyone out there. It’s like just an awesome old-time music school in the heart of Letcher County and just a beautiful thing. It’s like a few miles from where this prison proposal is projected for. And it is just the antithesis of, and just demonstrates how much beauty and power there is in this community that needs to be just built on and supported. So yeah, the Local Honeys.
All right. Well, thank you all again so much for coming on Everywhere Radio. I really, really enjoyed talking to you both altogether. I’ve talked to you individually, but not all at once. And yeah, thanks again. I really, really enjoyed our conversation.
Thanks so much, Anya.
So much, Anya. Yeah, really great to chat.