There are three prisons within 35 miles of Jenkins Independent High School, in Letcher County, Kentucky. In a region where the decline of the coal industry has left jobs scarce, the archipelago of state and federal prisons scattered throughout the area have become significant employers.
A few years ago, a student at Jenkins Independent High School came to guidance counselor Tammy Meade with a request: to create a career and technical education pathway that prepares students to work as prison guards.
Meade said yes. After all, whether her students are interested in pursuing a college degree or entering the workforce, her goal as a guidance counselor is to help them “leave high school with a plan,” she said.
Jenkins Independent is the only school in Kentucky to offer a program specifically in corrections, but it is far from the only school that includes a corrections curriculum. Neighboring Knott County includes corrections in its Law and Justice pathway, as do 30 other schools across the state. Many of these programs are formed in partnership with community colleges, which offer dual credit enrollment for participating high schoolers.
The law enforcement and corrections tracks are less popular statewide than pathways like business and marketing, human services, health science, and agriculture. But the programs still have a significant percentage of student participants: approximately 7 of Jenkins Independent’s 124 students and 53 of Knott County Central’s 576 students are enrolled in the law enforcement and corrections pathways.
And these are not new. In 2002, the United States Department of Education designated Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security (LPSCS) as one of 16 career clusters meant to help organize career and technical education programs. Since then, LPSCS programs have been created in more than 3,500 high schools and 1,500 community colleges across 41 states, according to Dr. Tom Washburn, the director of the Law and Public Safety Education Network (LAPSEN).
The network’s website says the purpose of LAPSEN is to provide and share “LPSCS career education programs, curriculum, certifications, and models” with each of its member states and school districts. Eight states, including Kentucky, as well as several independent school districts, are a part of LAPSEN, but Washburn hopes that state membership will expand rapidly in the coming years.
The creation of the Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security career cluster and the explosion of the accompanying career pathway programs mirrors nationwide trends in prisons and policing. Since the 1980s, incarceration rates have skyrocketed, hundreds of new prisons have been built around the country, especially in rural areas, and police funding has increased by over 200%.
Although popular around the country, these programs have a unique impact on rural, and especially Appalachian, schools. Central Appalachia has been one of the major epicenters of carceral expansion since the 1990s, largely due to the efforts of politicians like Hal Rogers, the congressional representative for Kentucky’s 5th district.
As the coal industry has declined, politicians like Rogers and some other community leaders advocated for building prisons in their communities, promising that they would bring jobs and boost the local economy. Decades later, those predictions have yet to come true. Hardly any local people are hired to work in federal prisons, which offer superior pay and benefits compared to state institutions, and prisons rarely boost the economy by buying locally sourced food or materials. And the Kentucky counties where the federal prisons were built are still some of the poorest in the country.
However, state and federal prisons have still had a lasting impact on the region. The Kentucky Future Skills Report estimates that 1,342 people in Eastern Kentucky currently work as correctional officers and jailors and that between 2019 and 2024 there will be 570 job openings (including openings resulting from the high rate of job turnover), more than in any other region in the state.
Corrections Careers Were Not Created Equal
The eagerness to train high schoolers in public safety, and specifically, corrections, is a direct result of this prison-oriented mindset. Teach for America corps member Gavin Pielow is the instructor of the Law and Justice pathway for Knott County Central High School in Eastern Kentucky. His classes include Criminal Investigation, Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement, Intro to Law, and Corrections. He says there are lots of reasons students are interested in his pathway, but local job opportunities are a big motivator.
In December of 2020, a state prison was reopened in neighboring Floyd County, piquing the interest of both Pielow’s students and representatives of the school district. “[Students] are really considering it as a career opportunity,” Pielow said. “And someone from the county schools even talked to me about it, and said ‘hey, tell your students about that because that’s a career avenue.’”
According to Pielow, students are looking for alternative career paths that would allow them to stay in their communities. The coal industry, which has historically been the primary employer in the region, is shrinking fast. Dr. Tom Washburn from LAPSEN says this is a common story for rural and Appalachian students.
The vast majority of Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security programs around the country are focused on public safety broadly, with corrections making up only a part of the curriculum. The majority of students, Washburn says, go into probation and parole. And for many urban students, working in corrections is seen as a stepping-stone to more desirable jobs in law enforcement.
Compared to other jobs in the public safety field, corrections officers have lower salaries, fewer benefits, and increased health risks, such as high rates of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), associated with their work. Although he believes corrections is necessary, Washburn admitted that the job has its downsides. “It’s not a great career,” he said.
“I would venture to say that in most areas with a stronger economic outlook, you’re going to see that corrections is more of a bridge into other law enforcement and public safety jobs,” Washburn said.
But for high schoolers in rural areas, the calculus is a bit different. Without any other major employers around, corrections becomes the “apex job,” according to Washburn.
Part of a Solution, or Part of a Problem?
Chronic instances of police brutality, which disproportionately affect Black Americans, have led to public scrutiny of police institutions nationwide. Washburn believes that Law and Public Safety programs in high schools could be part of the solution.
“I think the answer to 90% of our policing issues is we can reset the culture through our Law and Public Safety programs,” he said. “We can set these kids up at 14, 15 years old, and tell them, ‘cops should know this.’ We have that opportunity to interject sensitivity programs, cultural awareness programs.”
He says this is the critical mission of LAPSEN. “We can make sure these programs are fantastic, and the kids that are going through this training are going to come out the citizen guardians, the people we want protecting our streets.”
Dr. Judah Schept, a professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, is skeptical of this approach. He explained that one of the foundations of the rise of mass incarceration was the expansion and professionalization of the police force, beginning at the end of the 1960s.
To Schept, Washburn’s approach isn’t so much a solution as a deeper entrenchment of the same strategies that shaped our current system. “We’ve been there and done that as a way to address various crises of police and violence,” he said.
He said that increasing police training, especially in de-escalation tactics, is certainly not a bad thing. “But on the other hand, I would never advocate for that to be an area that communities choose to invest in.”.
“No amount of training or anti-bias education will change [the police’s] very structural relationship to the communities over which they exert order, which is at the root of the crisis of police violence,” he said.
Instead, Schept recommends that communities invest in other resources, like social workers, mental health services, and drug recovery clinics, rather than channeling more financial and human resources into what he calls the “expansion and legitimation” of police institutions.
An Offer Some Can’t Refuse
According to Kylie Whitaker of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Career and Technical Education (CTE), over 10,500 students are enrolled in the Law and Public Safety career pathway. Career and technical education programs are largely funded by federal Perkins grants, which allocate tens of millions of dollars to each state every year.
For Dr. Washburn, the growth of career and technical education programs represents an important shift in American high schools. “It’s a philosophical question: what’s the point of the kids going to school?” he said. “It’s getting kids ready for careers.”
In his opinion, career education of any kind is what makes secondary education meaningful. “For most people, it’s just a waste of four years. You learn how to write a 5-paragraph essay and put X and Y on the graph. But in the end, what’s the purpose after about six grades of education?” he said.
Robert Gipe, an acclaimed Appalachian author and educator, disagrees. “At that level, any kind of training for a specific work environment is more in service to the employers than it is to the students,” he said. “You limit people’s horizons by putting them into such a limited career opportunity so early in life. I’m interested in them being able to define what’s important to them.”
Instead of being channeled into career tracks at an early age, he said, students should learn to read and write, to think critically, and to be comfortable with basic math. “I’ve been to development events where companies are talking about what attracts them to communities, and in the testimony I’ve heard, it has a lot more to do with general competencies—capacity to reason and thinking skills—than it does with training for any one particular field.”
As an educator in Eastern Kentucky, not far from Jenkins Independent and Knott County Central high schools, Gipe is especially troubled by the focus on corrections. “We’re looking at these curriculums for communities that have limited employment options,” he said. “Are we just offering this curriculum to people who more or less have to take it?”