Ending the Coalfield-to-Prison Pipeline

Ending the Coalfield-to-Prison Pipeline

Boosters have promoted prison construction on abandoned mine lands as a tool of economic development throughout Appalachia. New federal funding provides the opportunity for more sustainable and socially beneficial investments.

A former coal mining site in West Virginia (Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images)

More than 1.5 million acres of abandoned mine lands stipple and pock the undulating landscapes of Appalachia. Its shorn mountaintops, slag-filled valleys and ponds, dwindling biodiversity, and leachate-infused water resources are all effects of the region’s long-declining coal, gas, and timber industries. They are evidence of what geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment—the strategy of depriving people and places of investment in order to hasten their exploitation, or to prefigure a kind of desperation through state-manufactured precarity.

External forces have used Appalachia as both a resource frontier and a dumping ground. Land theft by settlers in the eighteenth century led to industrialized timber plantations in the nineteenth, some of which still operate today. Throughout the twentieth century, as the timber industry shifted south and west, the coal industry became dominant. It is now decades into a permanent decline. Rather than undertaking a national effort to remediate and otherwise invest in the toxic lands of Appalachia, domestic policymakers have dedicated the last half-century to a divest-and-depopulate agenda. It is now one of the poorest places in the United States by any measure, with “diseases of despair” like opioid addiction nearing the highest rates in the country.

But capital is always seeking new sites to redevelop. In Appalachia, the prison-industrial complex has quickly and thoroughly filled the void. As Brett Story reminds readers in her pathbreaking Prison Land, “prison growth in Central Appalachia is part of a dramatic trend in rural prison siting across the United States . . . in communities where industrial decline and soaring poverty rates render land cheap and residents eager for new forms of employment, detention spaces are commonly pitched as economic development projects.” In Appalachia, many of those detention spaces are built atop the abandoned mine lands of the nearly defunct coal industry.

In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Buried within the IIJA is a provision to fully fund the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program—the sub-agency tasked with remediating the abandoned coal and uranium mines in rural communities throughout the nation that once supplied crucial sources of energy. The provision, which promises $11.3 billion in funding over fifteen years, isn’t enough to transform the region away from a dying extractive economy. But it does provide opportunities for development that breaks with the coalfield-to-prison pipeline.


From Coal to Incarceration

In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). The law created the AML program, which is partially responsible for making prison-building atop abandoned mine lands one of Appalachia’s most robust economic development strategies. The program administers direct subsidies, in the form of federal grants and loans, that are often paired with state and local economic incentives, including tax credits and supplemental grants and loans that promote capital-intensive remediation for legacy mine sites, including prison-building. United States Penitentiary Letcher, a proposed (and ultimately abandoned, though perhaps now being revived) prison development project outside of Whitesburg, Kentucky, received more than $500 million in subsidies for its construction—which would have made it the most expensive USP facility in the country.

Introduced by Arizona Representative Morris Udall, the SMCRA intended to “hold the entire coal industry responsible for reclaiming coal mine lands left abandoned across the country.” The majority of those lands are clustered in Appalachia. Though the program was slow to develop, by 2015, it was responsible for channeling more than $5.7 billion into AML remediation projects covering nearly 800,000 acres across the United States. The program has a backlog of almost 6.2 million acres left to clear, mostly in Central Appalachia and the Southwest, at an estimated cost of $9.6 billion.

The SMCRA required coal mine operators to return as much of their site to the approximate original contour (AOC) as feasible. This stipulation is responsible for the peculiar geometry of Appalachia’s rectangular and terraced mountains. But, as Erik Reece documents in Lost Mountain, state and local officials quickly devised ways to work around this provision. “Perhaps sensing that the AOC stipulation would be a hard sell,” he writes, lawmakers allowed coal operators to obtain a variance “if they could prove that the post-mined land would be put to higher or better uses.” “In the beginning, this meant commercial development . . . a few housing complexes and even a prison were built on these sites. . . . It eventually became much cheaper to plant grass and call it a pasture or move the site into receivership and let local officials build a prison.” Though the AML is ostensibly open to funding any project that meets the AOC specifications or the waiver qualifications of a higher and better use for the sites, the three primary outcomes have been conversion to grassland, indefinite abandonment, and the construction of prison facilities.

At the federal level, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) is responsible for coordinating and administering the permitting process on these sites. However, control over how and where those funds are spent tends to devolve to state and local government. In those states, coal and fossil fuel industry leaders exert significant, outsized influence over the permitting and development process.

Proposals for housing, schools, and other land uses that might bring people into regular, direct contact with these sites are closely scrutinized, if not altogether banned without prohibitively expensive site remediation. Yet no such scrutiny is applied to prison development. As a result, placing incarcerated people atop highly toxic abandoned mine lands has not yet halted a single project administered by the OSMRE. The agency does not consider the human health impact on incarcerated peoples on these toxic sites because most of this nation’s legal system does not treat incarcerated people as fully human. USP McCreary, near Pine Knot, Kentucky, operates alongside a freight airport, coal slurry ponds, an industrial pork farm and processing center, and one of the region’s oldest coal-powered electricity plants. Ultimately, the only considerations that have successfully halted prison construction to date have been through provisions in the Endangered Species Act—one of the few regulatory powers that the OSMRE is authorized to halt a remediation project over.

Prison-development projects also receive local land-use subsidies, including gifted or discounted parcels, infrastructure improvements, and a suspension of land development regulations that might otherwise thwart prison construction in the region. The flattened sites—shorn and razed through strip mining and mountaintop removal operations—are also typically close to existing infrastructure, making them a ready-made development proposition. USP Big Sandy, near Inez, Kentucky, received state and local capital improvement grants to construct a new wastewater treatment plant, without which the prison would not have been authorized for construction, due to Clean Water Act compliance concerns.

These monumental works of architecture and engineering tend to exist outside the public consciousness, in remote locations where only those who work, visit, or are housed in the prison see or touch it with any regularity. As Brett Story writes, “Prisons are . . . by design and definition, spaces of disappearance. They disappear the people inside of them. And they are themselves increasingly disappeared from the dense social spaces where many of us live and move around.” Just as the coalfields were at a remove from the majority of people who depended on the energy they provided, prisons are being sited in rural locations to avoid public scrutiny. But there are few other places where the knot of racial, climate, and economic justice is so legible. There is no path to a just, livable future in the region if these landscapes are not unmade.


New Blueprints

A number of racial justice and climate activists in the region have begun proposing alternatives—rooted in care, dignity, freedom, and abundance—to the region’s prison and extraction economy. The coalition ReImagine Appalachia, which published a blueprint for building a more just economy in the region in 2021, has highlighted how new federal funds from the IIJA and the Inflation Reduction Act (signed last August) can be used to make sustainable and socially beneficial investments, including on reclaimed mining areas. (The Climate and Community Project—a progressive think tank that one of us, Billy, co-founded that focuses on climate justice and infrastructure policy—broke down the good, bad, and ugly provisions in the IRA here.) Some of the Abandoned Mine Lands funding in the infrastructure bill is already being used for projects including trail restoration and mixed-use development—but also for new multi-million-dollar police and military training facilities. What is needed are more of the kinds of technical plans, analyses, visual presentations, and other materials that prison developers and others use to secure loans, grants, and subsidies, created instead for these kinds of alternative futures in Appalachia. While the universe of potential alternatives is vast, here are three that deserve special attention.

The first potential alternative is the decommissioning and repurposing of Appalachia’s archipelago of coalfield prisons. The afterlife of these facilities could be varied—there are simply too many carceral facilities in the region to implement any kind of standard adaptive re-use program. But it’s easy to imagine some of them becoming rural electric-cops—these prisons are all built on micro-grids anyway, and they sit on the last flat sites to be developed in Appalachia, making them ideal for generating and storing wind and solar energy on site.

A second is the remediation of the region’s many brownfield sites—including and especially the mountaintops and slag-filled valleys of its coal counties. In this effort, Appalachians may look to Germany’s Internationale Bauausstellungen (IBA) as a model. The IBA is an all-of-government program that focuses the financial, administrative, and regulatory capacities of the German government on a particular geography (usually a rural, resource community) over a fixed period of time (usually ten years). The IBA has transformed Germany’s Ruhr Valley—once the nation’s coalfield, with many of the same ills as Appalachia—and the Lusatia countryside outside of Berlin—a distressed area facing decades of disinvestment and depopulation—through massive investments in environmental remediation, public works and infrastructure, and housing. Appalachia already has a regional commission—one that could be fully funded and empowered to lead a similar effort.

The third and final alternative deals with the mines themselves—literal voids in the landscape, some of which are ideal candidates for pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities. These are low-tech batteries that use gravity to store and release energy. In this configuration, an abandoned mine could be retrofitted to serve as a reservoir, with pumps, pipes, and turbines connecting it to a river or waterway below, and a field of wind or solar power above. At times of excess energy generation, water would be pumped uphill to the reservoir. At times of inadequate energy generation, that water would then be released and sent through a turbine to bolster the fuel mix in the region. If this sounds far-fetched, it isn’t: the region already boasts one such facility, Raccoon Mountain, built in 1978.

There’s no shortcut to building the power and coalitions that would be required to bring about such a bold transformation. But more proposals like these could help to fill in the details for activists and organizers fighting prison construction and climate change. For more than thirty years, prison-building became a central pillar of rural economic development in the United States. These plans were executed with clear intent. That means that other worlds are possible there too.

Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director for the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Climate and Community Project.

AL McCullough is a landscape designer and executive coordinator for strategy at Taproot Earth.

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