Alex Chambers: There's a field in Letcher County, Kentucky, where local folks go.
Judah Schept: ...often without being charged, to hunt for mushrooms and look for ginseng...
Alex Chambers: There are bluegrass festivals and weddings, and there's no prison.
Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States, Judah Schept tells us how a prison almost got built there and what stopped it. Coming up after this, here on Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana.
Alex Chambers: There's a spot in Letcher County, Kentucky, where you can drive up a winding road and get to a meadow. You feel like you're driving up a mountainside, because you are. And then, suddenly, it flattens out.
Judah Schept: It's super flat for hundreds of acres and yet, you're like close to these other peaks, you know? You're in the middle of all these other peaks and you're like, "Oh, this is really weird, it's like super flat up here."
Alex Chambers: There's tall grass and flowers, birds, but also a kind of absence because you're standing in a place that was once a mountain. In the 1980s, the couple who lived at the bottom of the mountain decided they needed money, so they brought in a coal company and the coal company, as they do, removed the mountain top to get to the coal. You probably know that mountain top removal mining is incredibly destructive.
Judah Schept: And, you know, not to over state it, but it's emotional, you know, to be on top of this space that's been subjected to really significant extractive violence.
Alex Chambers: We know this story is starting to sound like another lament, more habitat lost, more streams polluted, more local communities devastated. But you know, it's always more complicated than just disaster and destruction. That strange flat meadow turned into a space for other things. In the decades since the top was taken off the mountain, the couple who owned it got creative.
Judah Schept: Just as a few examples, they'd hosted a couple of really major bluegrass concerts up there, like 6,000 person events. Like, people would come and just camp up there. And so they had some bathroom facilities and Letcher County Model Airplane Club had paved a runway up there to fly model airplanes. An adjacent landowner is also a master falconer, and so he flies his birds and hunts with his birds up there. And then lots of people from the county go there, often without being charged, to hunt for mushrooms and look for ginseng and stuff like that.
Alex Chambers: One thing that's not happening in that meadow, there's no prison getting built. This is the story of how that meadow came really close to hosting a prison and what it took to stop it. This is Inner States, by the way, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers.
Alex Chambers: When I was in my late 20s, I lived in Alabama and I taught writing in some of the prisons there. The first prison I taught in was the Bibb Correctional Facility. It was a medium security prison in rural Alabama. When I would drive into Bibb County, it looked like the only places to work were the Walmart just up the highway or the prison. There was a little diner too. OK, I'm looking up some stats here and yeah, I'm half right. In 2019 - a decade after I was there - the biggest employer was the school system, then the prison, then a plastics manufacturer. Walmart didn't make the list, but still, I imagine the prison's always hiring. You can see why a rural community would want one. Whether they've lost jobs because of farm consolidation and shuttered factories or, say, the decline of the coal industry, the rural parts of the country are hurting and politicians are happy to offer jails and prisons as a fix.
Alex Chambers: So, it might be surprising to hear about Letcher County, Kentucky. Letcher County is in eastern Kentucky where coal was king. It's not anymore. Mining jobs have been drying up and Letcher County's economy is in bad shape. About 15 years ago, the promise of new jobs showed up in a proposal from Kentucky congressman, Hal Rogers. He wanted to put a new federal prison on that flattened mountain top. The mountain top had been removed for coal and now it seemed like the perfect place for a prison. The Obama administration funded the project, $444 million. We're going to come back to that number, 444 million. By the time the project was green lighted in 2018, the budget had gone up to 510 million. It was the biggest prison allocation in US history.
Alex Chambers: And then something unusual happened. On June 20th, 2019, the US Bureau of Prisons posted a notice of withdrawal in the federal register. It was withdrawing its decision to build the Letcher County US Penitentiary. It was the first time a project like that had been canceled so late in the game. That decision came about because of a whole coalition of activists, lawyers, landowners, federal prisoners, and others who thought building the prison was not actually such a good idea for Letcher County or maybe anywhere. The story of how it all unfolded comes from Judah Schept. Judah is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and he's the author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia, which came out in 2022 from NYU Press.
Alex Chambers: Judah got interested in the links between coal country and prisons through his dissertation research at Indiana University. While he was here, he heard about a new jail expansion being planned in Bloomington. Planners were calling it a "justice campus". He got involved as a community organizer opposing its construction and then as an ethnographer for his dissertation.
Judah Schept: And, as part of the study to better understand the justice campus in Bloomington and in Monroe County, it seemed important to think about what had existed prior to where the justice campus was proposed to be built.
Alex Chambers: It was planned for 85 acres on the west side of town, the old RCA Thompson site, which, for decades had been the biggest color television production plant in the world. It shut down in the mid '90s and the city pretty much immediately started planning the justice campus.
Judah Schept: So, having just sort of written about that and really, maybe for the first time for me, even as I had been active around these issues for a while, beginning to think about this relationship really in the landscape between industry and de-industrialization and the rise of, in the case of Bloomington, jails, I moved to Kentucky with some general understanding that there were a lot of prisons in eastern Kentucky. And so, the project began with just a general set of questions like, why are there so many prisons in this one region?
Judah Schept: You know, it's hard to, almost impossible really, to ask those questions about our region in particular, central Appalachia, and not be struck by the very visceral and visual practice of building prisons on mountain top removal sites.
Alex Chambers: After all, in the eyes of the government, the mountain top removal sites were just these flat expanses that weren't really being used for anything else. In a sense, those removed mountain tops created empty spaces on multiple levels. It wasn't just the mountains themselves that had gone missing, it was jobs in the mines too. As we know, coal was central to the region.
Judah Schept: Most people who may be listening to this and maybe thinking about eastern Kentucky and the broader region, imagine it as, like, you know, the coalfields, which is accurate, right?
Alex Chambers: The coal companies moved in in the late 19th century. The industry exploded in the first decades of the 20th and really grew in the world wars.
Judah Schept: Appalachian coal was sort of central to the war efforts and at the peak of coal employment in Kentucky alone, there was something like 75,000 people employed by the industry in the state of Kentucky, most of whom were in the eastern Kentucky coalfields. There are also coalfields in western Kentucky, which is not Appalachia, it's a very different kind of landscape. Most of those 75,000 were in eastern Kentucky. But right around the time of the peak of coal employment, the industry also began rapidly mechanizing which, of course, allowed for greater production. But, at the same time allowed the industry to reduce the costs of labor and, of course, then begin to circumvent and decrease the power of the unions.
Alex Chambers: One of the most effective ways they mechanized was the introduction in the late 1970s of mountain top removal mining.
Judah Schept: As this particularly sort of violent form of what we call surface mining or strip mining, and it really in a lot of ways decimated the ecology and economy of the region. It decimated the economy because, I think, the ratio is one miner operating on a mountaintop removal site can extract the same amount of coal as 22 miners operating in a deep mine. Yeah, so it had grave implications for labor, but also grave implications for ecology as mountain top removal and mining in general, of course, as people I'm sure know, have really devastating effects on both environment and public health.
Alex Chambers: One of the places coalminers were losing their jobs? Letcher County in southeastern Kentucky.
Judah Schept: Beginning in the late '80s and early 1990s, the US representative...
Alex Chambers: ...Congressman Hal Rogers...
Judah Schept: ...who represents all of eastern Kentucky began to introduce federal prisons as a "solution" to these crises I've been discussing.
Alex Chambers: He's currently one of the longest-serving congresspeople; long-term chair of the Appropriations Committee, lots of connections.
Judah Schept: Yeah, a very powerful broker on the Hill. He brought three federal prisons to eastern Kentucky just in the 1990s alone, on promises of rural economic development and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he was close to becoming successful to bringing a fourth prison to Letcher County on the same promises of economic development. I say "all evidence to the contrary" because those three counties to which he'd brought three federal prisons in the '90s and early 2000s, remain three of the poorest counties in one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire United States.
Alex Chambers: But it was that process that had sort of accelerated into this long decade moment in which I was kind of active and doing the work in Letcher County.
Alex Chambers: But employment wasn't the only crisis in the region. If we think of a lack of jobs as a crisis of production, there was also a crisis of social reproduction, which basically just means how society keeps itself going.
Judah Schept: The thing is, is that the coal industry also, to some extent, floated lots of other things in these counties, right? It helped to float school systems and build out infrastructure, like road building and water lines and things like that. And, as the coal industry declined, particularly coal production, so too declined various sources of revenue on which these counties had relied. And the prisons came in not only as a way to imagine alternative employment futures, but also as a way to imagine and concretely plan for the ability to do very kind of like mundane things that all communities need, like update schools, extend water lines, renovate waste water treatment plants, build and repave roads, like all kinds of that kind of stuff as well.
Judah Schept: And so that was also very much on the table in Letcher County, the ability of United State Penitentiary Letcher to resolve crises of unemployment and crises of social reproduction, i.e. the ability for Letcher County residents to even see a future for themselves in the county.
Alex Chambers: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Judah Schept. He's a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and the author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia. It's time for a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about the promises prison developers make to local communities.
Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers, welcome back. We're talking with Judah Schept about why the prison industry in Central Appalachia grew alongside the decline of the coal industry. One of the major challenges communities faced was that they were losing revenue, not just the income from local jobs, also local taxes, which is what kept local schools going and road maintenance and more. I asked Judah to describe the kinds of promises prison boosters have made to local communities and how that's played out.
Judah Schept: I mean, this is really the crucial question, right? Like, they're marketed in all of these ways that we'll talk about here in a second, and maybe it would be one thing if they actually followed through on and succeeded on those promises. That would be a kind of different issue we'd have to grapple with, right? Like, as people critical of mass incarceration, we'd have to grapple with a really intense question, which is what does it mean that there are these institutions premised on caging poor people, of course disproportionately poor people of color, and yet they are these successful strategies of rural economic development? That's a really intense question. This issue is they're just not successful [LAUGHS] and while we can point to certain areas where they may succeed in some ways, and certain communities where they may succeed in multiple ways, and I think it's important to acknowledge that and I can speak to that in a moment, on the whole the data is pretty secure in saying that rural prison growth does not really equal rural economic development, particularly in distressed rural regions and in some cases it can further depress those economies.
Alex Chambers: But that's not how it's presented on paper. The prison Hal Rogers wanted to build was a federal prison and that offered a specific set of opportunities, like federal salaries.
Judah Schept: So, part of the pitch from Hal Rogers, and from his allies in Letcher County, a group called the Letcher Planning Commission, was that these would be $60,000 a year jobs, federal benefits, you retire with federal retirement, and that there would be something like 400 jobs coming to the county, stable jobs.
Alex Chambers: And the effect of those 400 jobs ripples out.
Judah Schept: That means, 400 people who work at United States Penitentiary Letcher, who will be buying gas at local gas stations and paying local income taxes and shopping at local stores, and buying food at local restaurants, sending their children to local schools, visiting local doctors.
Alex Chambers: And, as Judah spent time in the community, listening to people discuss the proposal, he saw them graft onto those promises, a vision of being able to keep living there.
Judah Schept: Of course, people desperately want to stay where their families are and where they're born and raised, right?
Alex Chambers: The idea of USP Letcher meant...
Judah Schept: They could envision a future for themselves there, they could envision their health clinics staying open, their children being able to stay. The local school district responded in a way that I think is really telling. At various levels of the school district, both high school, vocational school, community college, they began to build out criminal justice and law enforcement tracks, including partnering with a four-year university to offer a bachelor's degree and potentially a masters degree, all of which orbited around the promise of USP Letcher and the idea that they would be training the next generation of prison guards, right?
Judah Schept: So, whereas a generation ago they would be perhaps preparing people for jobs in the coal mines, now in the 2000s, even just as recently as a couple of years ago, the discourse was preparing the next generation of workers for jobs in the prison economy.
Alex Chambers: Like, the schools are creating new curriculum already based on this promise of a present that hasn't come yet?
Judah Schept: And they started doing it back in 2012.
Alex Chambers: Wow!
Judah Schept: I mean, that's the other thing that's wild about it, is that the process for siting USP Letcher really did not even begin to get a lot of momentum until about 2015, but you can see the school district really planning for it as early as, I think, 2011 or 2012, hiring people, building out a firing range and building a mock courtroom. Yeah, it was really consequential, just the idea that they might build this prison.
Alex Chambers: And I mean, it was the only thing that was offering a sense of, like, you used the word "futurity" the sense of something that's gonna stabilize us in this place, it seems like?
Judah Schept: Exactly. It's the only thing. It's what was on offer. I'm just gonna underline that point, right, like, I would never want to come across as blaming the folks in the county. This is what was offered to them in this conjunctural moment, this moment characterized by the rise of the carceral state, the rise of mass incarceration, the loss of all of these other jobs and, you know, the maintenance of this idea that prisons do provide this kind of rural economic development. We were all sort of caught in this moment and the prison therefore was the-- Uh-oh, my lights just went out. Can you hear me?
Alex Chambers: For a minute there, I could not hear him. Right, there was a storm passing through Lexington. Judah was OK. His power came on in a few minutes thanks to good infrastructure and we got back to it. The proposal to build USP Letcher gave people one way to imagine a future for themselves in Letcher County, but there were people there who knew other futures were possible.
Judah Schept: Yeah. Letcher County has a particularly rich history of social movement, organizing. It was the home of the Appalachian committee to save the land and people, it was the home of the Appalachian committee for full employment. These were these grass roots community organizations that developed in the early 1960s, some of which came out of the war on poverty, some of which anticipated the war on poverty, a really rich legacy of resistance and organizing and, to an extent, insurrection as well. So, in some ways, the fact that it was USP Letcher that elicited a response when some of these other prisons hadn't isn't terribly surprising, because Letcher County has always had this kind of genealogy.
Alex Chambers: Part of that genealogy is Apple Shop.
Judah Schept: This amazing kind of community, media, arts organization based in Whitesburg, the county seed of Letcher County, which has this incredible radio show, which broadcasts into seven of the prisons in the region that are in its listening range. The radio show's called Calls From Home and it broadcasts messages of love and support from loved ones all over the place into these prisons, specific to specific prisoners, and prisoners can also call and request songs and give shout-outs and things like that.
Alex Chambers: By the way, as I work on this episode at the end of July 2022, Apple Shop in Whitesburg have just been hit with the worst flash flooding they've ever seen. Hopefully, by the time you're listening recovery will be well underway. So, Apple Shop's connection to prisons was one factor. There was also Black Lives Matter.
Judah Schept: This prison began to generate a lot of momentum on the heels of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Alex Chambers: Between the legacy of social movement organization, the radio show Calls From Home, and the critical analysis of mass incarceration that emerged alongside Black Lives Matter...
Judah Schept: A group of people, particularly young folks who'd been affiliated with the radio show, as the process for USP Letcher accelerated, began having conversations around opposing it and developed this group. They called themselves the Letcher Governance Project. It was really a group that was focused kind of like primarily on challenging undemocratic, corporate heavy, you know, community planning and development practices that is the legacy of planning in Appalachia, you know, done by county elites, done by the coal industry. But, in this moment in particular, it was the prison that was sort of the subject of the organizing.
Alex Chambers: They decided the place where they could have the most leverage was by intervening with the Bureau of Prison's claims about economic development. So, they developed a hashtag: #our444million. You might remember, that was the original price tag of the prison.
Judah Schept: And #our444million really did a lot of work to, like, disrupt the Bureau of Prisons and the local prison booster's claims around economic development. It generated a lot of, like, counter proposals for what people could imagine occurring in the community. So, as a way to claim the money and say, "Yes," like, "Letcher County needs half a billion dollars," but to also disavow the prison. And to do it in no uncertain terms, to say, "We don't want our job to come at the expense of other poor folks, particularly poor people of color. We want a rural jobs program but a rural jobs program that's in kind of, you know, a multi racial class solidarity with other folks."
Alex Chambers: And the way they came up with that hashtag, I feel like, was interesting too.
Judah Schept: Crucial. Yes, crucial. I'm so glad you said that. So, the members of the Letcher Governance Project, like I said, were active in the radio show, but they were also active in lots of other things in the community. And that brought them into the sort of sphere of southern movement organizing, with folks in Atlanta, other places in the deep south, certainly with Tennessee and the amazing Highlander Center, the stalwart social movement organization in the mountains in Tennessee. And, as part of this collection of social movement folks in the south, and in the Appalachian south, they found out about a campaign that was occurring in Atlanta, particularly in the Atlanta schools, that Project South was helping with. And it was a group of young, primarily African American youth, who were troubled by this proposal for the Atlanta police to spend, or I guess it would be for the schools to spend $10 million to have a greater presence of Atlanta police officers in Atlanta public schools.
Judah Schept: And these young students, public high school students in Atlanta with Project South developed this campaign called "10 Mill For Real?" saying like, "Really? Like, our public schools are so underfunded in all these ways and you're gonna drop $10 million to put cops in our schools?" And to hear the Letcher Governance Project folks talk about it, that framing really resonated for them and so they had been having these conversations in Letcher County but also where then influenced by this framing from other folks doing this incredible anti-police organizing in Atlanta, and they kind of like took that framing back to eastern Kentucky and implemented it, and it really resonated. You could see it resonate on social media with the hashtag.
Judah Schept: I saw it resonate in the pages of the environmental impact statements, which was a part of the official environmental review process required under federal law to build a prison, but where there's this open comment period, where the public can write in. And there were plenty of people who wrote in in support of the prison, but there were tons of folks who wrote in in opposition to it, many of whom would use #our444million as the framework within which they opposed the prison and advocated for something different. So, that was crucial, but there were also other parts of this coalition that came together.
Alex Chambers: One was that falconer who lived adjacent to the land. Mitch Whitaker's land was part of the original rendering for USP Letcher. His grandfather had lived on that land too, and had fought coal companies who wanted to take it. Whitaker saw his opposition to the prison taking the land as part of his grandfather's legacy.
Judah Schept: But who also rehabilitated injured birds of prey on his land and had this business as a falconer. And so he joined this coalition and in joining the coalition, it also, in his words sort of developed his own analysis of mass incarceration.
Alex Chambers: And the coalition grew. Local organizations, national environmental activists and attorneys who were concerned about the environmental effects on the county and the public health effects on the prisoners; incarcerated people themselves joined too. But I want to remind you that this coalition had a big fight on their hands. They were up against the federal government and one of the most powerful people in Congress.
Judah Schept: Yes. Exactly.
Alex Chambers: It doesn't seem like a very hopeful project.
Judah Schept: Exactly. It doesn't seem hopeful at all.
Alex Chambers: Especially because, in April of 2018, the Bureau of Prisons handed down a Record of Decision to build the prison. That ended the environmental review process and moved the prison into the construction phase.
Judah Schept: So, it looked like we had lost. I mean, it looked like this prison was gonna be built. But then because of a whole lot of things, not the least of which was because of the delays of four, five years that the coalition had produced...
Alex Chambers: During which time, the government changed. Obama, remember, the Obama administration had given the go-ahead on the prison. Obama was no longer in office. It's now the middle of the Trump administration.
Judah Schept: Trump has somewhat different priorities. Also the federal prison population has declined, Trump is trying to pass the First Step Act. Like, there are all these like, weird contradictions happening at the, like, highest scales of this state. So, we're in that moment. But also, as I alluded to before, the Abolitionist Law Center attorneys had been paving the way for a law suit, and so they filed a lawsuit. There was a local plaintiff, which was a group of mostly local residents who had filed as a non-profit called The Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods and the North Fork River Watershed, basically a local environmental group. A lawsuit like that sort of needed a local plaintiff and a bunch of people got together.
Judah Schept: So, that was one plaintiff and then Mitch joined the lawsuit, Mitch Whitaker, and federal prisoners, and this was a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons, pointing to the agency's sort of ignorance of all of the issues that we had raised during the process, but also pointing to a couple of other things, which are crucial. One is that the Bureau of Prisons themselves had admitted, in the pages of their environmental impact statement, had admitted that the prison would not have the economic development that they had once promised. That was due to lots of people writing in and pointing to the existing social science literature and the Bureau was forced to admit it, but also in the lawsuit, pointing to the fact that the Department of Justice itself, under the Trump administration, had admitted that they don't need the prison.
Judah Schept: The federal prison population numbers had been declining; there was no need, even on their own terms for the prison to be built. And it took some time, but after the lawsuit had been filed, after the prisoners were added to it, and then in the context of the DOJ and the Trump administration itself saying, "Yeah, we don't need this prison, we're gonna withdraw the funding," the Bureau of Prisons was forced to sort of concede and withdraw its Record of Decision, effectively ending the prison. And that was a truly historic victory. It had never been done before. Never had a federal prison moved into the stage of construction and then not been built. And so it was truly, like I said, truly a historic victory for many people who were opposing it.
Alex Chambers: How did it feel?
Judah Schept: Complicated. It felt complicated. It was a victory in the sense of defeating the prison, which was obviously [LAUGHS] that's like, you know, the main campaign. The problem was that, in the absence of the prison, there were no alternative proposals for anything. It was the prison or nothing. So, on the heals of the defeat of the prison it's not like there was some other proposal that Hal Rogers or anybody else had to fill its footprint or even to fill like, some small part of its footprint. And so Letcher County remains in this stage of economic crisis, and so that felt like a win in some regard and a continued ongoing loss in another regard.
Alex Chambers: That's because the US Jail and Prison system works on multiple scales. So, USP Letcher was a federal prison project. That's defeated, most likely. But...
Judah Schept: Right after it was defeated, like, same calender year, the state of Kentucky reopened a prison 100 miles north in Wheelwright, which we had mentioned before, which had been a private prison. It had been closed in 2012 and the state reopened it because of the bloated Kentucky state prison population. At the same time, county jails continue to open and grow in eastern Kentucky as kind of like sources of revenue for local communities. This is all to say that, as we sort of contributed to the defeat of the carceral state in this one fight, in one corner of eastern Kentucky at the scale of the federal government, it was expanding in these other areas.
Judah Schept: So, that's like another way in which the otherwise kind of glee I would feel at defeating the prison has been somewhat tampered. So, yeah, so, it's complicated.
Alex Chambers: It is complicated. I think we should sit with that for a minute. Let's take a break. When we come back, we'll talk about what it means to imagine a world that doesn't rely on prisons for economic development or punishment. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. I want to address a subtext to this conversation with Judah Schept about the fight to stop the building of a federal prison in eastern Kentucky. It's not just that the jobs and taxes the prison boosters promised probably wouldn't pan out, it's also that Judah doesn't think we should be using prisons in the first place. But, if we don't have prisons, you might be thinking, they how do we deal with the harm some people inflict on other people? Prison abolitionists, Judah included, have thought about this.
Judah Schept: First of all, certainly at the scale of like, a county, like, let's say Monroe County, or where I live in Fayette County, Lexington, Kentucky, you know, most of the people in jail are there pre-trial, you know, that's like, 65% of them, or they're there for back child support charges or probation violation or you know, possession charges, like. So, there's all sorts of things for which people do not need to be locked in a cage, right? That's the first thing I would say, and where the money that goes to put them in the cage could go towards something else that's much more life-giving. Even when harms occur, there are, what I would call and what abolitionist call non-reformist reforms that could be in place to address the harm, right? Some of those exist in places like Monroe County, like restorative justice services. And those, of course, could be invested in and built out and scaled out as ways to respond.
Judah Schept: And, of course, onto those could be all kinds of practices of restitution and, and payment and community work and all, all of that. And I find all of that compelling. I also find it limiting in terms of that being the only response to the question of, "What is abolition?" Because to me, abolition means a whole lot more.
Alex Chambers: I just want to observe that everything that you just listed there is different approaches than prisons and jails as responses to interpersonal harm, or something like that. It's all reactive.
Judah Schept: It's all reactive. Brilliant, exactly. It's all responses at the level of the harm being done which is, of course, we need to operate there, right, of course. Harms occur, like, yes, violence happens. It's incumbent upon us to think about ways to respond and address that. But, as lots of other folks have said, people like Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Angela Davis, lots of people, abolition is really about presence. And what that means is, it's really about remaking our communities and worlds in very concrete ways. That may be at the level of, like, the budget. It might be at the level of re-imagining what work looks like, or what care work looks like. And so, abolition is really a way of thinking about alternatives to, I mean, in this case, like, alternatives to incarceration or alternatives to the police, that may really have nothing on their face to do with like, crime and punishment.
Judah Schept: So, like, to go back to eastern Kentucky for a moment, abolition in eastern Kentucky, in Letcher County, is about not building a prison and instead investing in all kinds of ways to allow people to see a future for themselves there that doesn't involve keeping people in cages or policing people or whatever, right? And in that regard, to me it's very concrete, right? Like, abolition is about grass roots social democracy and grass roots planning. Like, what do people in Letcher County wanna see for their community? What are the economic development models that aren't extractive, that don't rely on waste disposal, which is another common attempt at economic development in the community, or in that region?
Judah Schept: So, abolition is really, I think it often has to be kind of like context specific. It's going to look different in Monroe County and Bloomington than it does in eastern Kentucky, but to me it's a framework for thinking about the kind of dramatic, radical, potentially revolutionary social change that we desperately need and that I think a lot of people actually want, if you ask them. In some places it might look more incremental and piecemeal, it might look like reallocation, taking a percentage of a budget that had gone to the police and allocating it elsewhere. In other places, I think it can look much more substantial and really almost zeroing out the amount of money we allocate towards jails and prisons and police, and really putting that money where it would actually do the things that we imagine police and prisons and jails and probation to do, which is to provide people with safety, right? Or treatment, or security or education or whatever.
Alex Chambers: How do we, as a society, provide people with safety and security? It's one of the biggest questions of modern political life. Our assumptions about how much to trust other people and which other people, lead us to very different conclusions about how to organize our society. Judah pointed out to me that, for a lot of abolitionists, it's not just about getting rid of prisons, it's about rethinking our whole social system, education, the economy, how we think about race and gender, the works.
Judah Schept: But what I think is particularly important to retain about abolition, really crucial in some ways about abolition generally and maybe abolition of the prison industrial complex specifically, is that it foregrounds the role of, let's say, cops and cages more generally. Of course, police, jails, prisons, courts, electronic monitoring, probation, parole, all of it, foregrounds all of that in our analysis and politics with respect to the state and, in particular the way that the state has transformed itself, transformed its sort of capacities over the last 40 to 50 years and, in particular, the ways that all of those relationships and institutions and capacities I've just mentioned, have become really central to the maintenance of what we might call racialized capitalist social order. And I think you see that in everything from what we've been talking about, like the role of the rural county jail, let's say, in serving as like a reliable source of revenue for rural counties in crisis; to the rural prison serving as sort of a punitive, federal rural jobs program or helping communities imagine a future in a whole region; to urban gentrification patterns and the role of the police in insulating them; to fine and fee structures that supplement already incredibly bloated police budgets..
Alex Chambers: OK. So, in the last half century, prisons and policing have become more and more at the center of how we deal with challenges in society. There's one more point I think we should address here: crime. Aren't prisons a response to crime? As I was getting ready for this episode, I mentioned Judah's book to a friend. He asked what it was about. I said it was about how there were more prisons in Appalachia now because of the decline of the coal industry. And he asked, "Is that because crime went up?" Leave it to me to forget about crime, but I don't know. Judah says prison and jail expansion and crime rates don't actually tend to correlate.
Judah Schept: I think it's a pretty common I would say misconception, so much so though, that I think it can sort of function as common sense, right? Like, we imagine that if we're building more and more prisons in the United States as, of course, we have over the last four or five decades, it must be in response to a growing presence of crime or a rise in the crime rate or something like that. I would say a few things in response to that, I guess. The first, which is a really, like, sort of pithy but really helpful gloss from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who I think of as maybe the authority on many of these questions. In her pretty foundational book, Golden Gulag, she puts it like, this in terms of explaining what we call "mass incarceration" or the "prison boom." She says, looking back on, you know, the last 40 years or so, she says something like, "Crime went up, crime went down, we cracked down." In other words, the crime rate went up, it then began decreasing and it was at that point that we began so-called sort of getting tough on crime through all kinds of legislative and administrative practices.
Judah Schept: So, the sort of short way of restating that is just that prison building and jail expansion and things like that don't really map onto crime rates in any kind of predictable way. They do and are responses to things like criminalization, meaning behaviors that were once not criminalized becoming criminalized. But it's worth restating again. We're still in a historic low period of crime rates for those who pay attention to those things and who find in that particular sort of measure a certain degree of importance, right? It's still worth stating we're in a particularly low period of crime, historic low.
Alex Chambers: The building of jails and prisons isn't just about crime. Maybe it's not at all about crime. Instead, Judah says these institutions have become central to other parts of how our government functions. In some ways, they do generate revenue, they do create some rural jobs and infrastructure, funding for education, you get the picture. USP Letcher would have changed the culture and landscape of Letcher County. Maybe it would have helped in some ways. It didn't get built, but it's not as if that half billion dollars are doing other things in the county. It's still sitting in limbo in the Bureau of Prisons. It'd be nice if it could help with that flooding that just hit the area. In the meantime, that strange flat meadow is still there, where there used to be a mountain. You can hold bluegrass concerts there, have a wedding, train your falcons, hunt for mushrooms. Maybe it doesn't pay the bills, but it sure sounds better than standing guard.
Alex Chambers: It's unlikely the Bureau of Prisons had it in for Mitch Whitaker and his falcons in particular, but I like to think he feels a small sense of triumph as his birds wheel around over the cone flower and milkweed, even if the attempt to build a prison there was not personal, even if it did not constitute what we have come to call a micro-aggression.
Ross Gay: Microgentrification. "We buy gold" You might have called it a microaggression or a macroaggression when, about a year ago, I was sitting on the far end of the porch stoop situation outside one of my beloved cafés which shared the stoop with a pawn shop, I forget the name, in front of which I sat, or to the side of which I sat, where the sun was sneaking under the awning. And while I was blissed out, eyes closed, holding my 8oz coffee in my lap, bathing in vitamin D, all the tanks of my immunity being refilled, an employee at the pawn shop interrupted by saying, "Hey buddy, you don't scare me, but I'm afraid you might scare some of my customers, so I'm gonna have to ask you to move on."
Ross Gay: Did I mention there was a pink neon "We Buy Gold" sign flickering in the window above my head? Anyway, I recalled this interaction as I was leaving that very same café, which has now expanded next door into the "We Buy Gold" store. I looked at the porch where about a year ago I had been told to scoot... not their porch anymore.
Alex Chambers: That was Ross Gay reading "Microgentrification" from his book, The Book of Delights. Ross is a poetry professor at Indiana University. Alright, that's it for Inner States. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash,Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer, who just drank his last can of Tab ever is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time for some found sound.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to a military helicopter on a summer evening. I hope this episode helped to remind you that that sound is not inevitable. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.