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Noon Edition

The Prison They Didn't Build

Field in Letcher County, KY

A particular field in Letcher County, Kentucky (Jill Frank)

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, and that flatness is very strange, because it’s halfway up a mountain, surrounded by other mountains.

There’s tall grass, flowers, birds. There’s also a kind of absence, because you’re standing in a place that was, once, another mountain. In the 1980s, the couple who lived at its base brought in a coal company, and the coal company, as they do, removed the mountaintop to get to the coal. As you probably already know, mountaintop removal mining is incredibly destructive. Judah Schept, a scholar and community member in Kentucky, has been to that spot, and he says that being in a place that’s been subjected to such environmental violence is emotional, even if that violence isn’t readily apparent among the birds and grasses.

It occurs to me that this might sound like the beginning of another environmental lament. More habitat lost, more streams polluted, more local communities devastated. Those things are happening. Just this past week, Letcher and other nearby counties have been devastated by unprecedented flash floods. But here’s the thing. Disaster and destruction are never the only thing going on. For example, after that mountaintop was removed, life returned to that strange, flat top, and in the decades since, the couple who owned it has gotten creative. They hosted a bluegrass festival. People have gotten married up there. Others hunt for mushrooms and ginseng. One thing that’s not happening in that meadow? There’s no prison getting built.

This week on Inner States, we have the story of how that meadow came very close to hosting a prison, and what it took to stop it, from Judah Schept, who wrote about that struggle in his new book, Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia, published this past April by NYU Press.

And, if that’s not enough, we’ll also hear from Ross Gay about microgentrification, Kameryn Moore about a guy in marching band who needed a haircut, and Bronislava Volková about the stilling of youthful passions.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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