The group’s first meeting was in March 2016 at Tom Sexton’s house, a spacious three-bedroom apartment a few doors down from the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library on Main Street in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Time was already running out. Sexton and eight of his friends, most of them, like Sexton, environmentalists or other activist-types who had surfed between nonprofit jobs, huddled in his living room and tallied their resources against those of their opponents. It was a grim accounting. Between them, Sexton and his friends had a few decades of organizing experience, some youthful social media savvy, and at least one person willing to chain herself to heavy machinery. As Sexton might say, that and a buck fifty will get you a cup of coffee at the Double Kwik—and probably a felony charge. Their opponents were the richest men in the county, backed by one of the most powerful members of Congress, the federal government, and anyone else who stood to benefit from the construction of a $444 million federal prison in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky.
A month earlier, the area’s congressman, Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky’s 5th district, had secured funding to build the prison atop a former surface mine in the hamlet of Roxana, around 20 minutes west of Whitesburg. Rogers’s achievement was the culmination of an arduous process that had begun back in 2005, when one of his aides suggested to local community members that the best way to improve the county’s prospects was to bequeath it a prison. The people Rogers’s aide spoke to belonged to the Letcher County Planning Commission, a private enterprise with a public-sounding name, composed of business and civic leaders in the area. Its co-chair and most public face was Elwood Cornett, a retired educator and practicing preacher. The other co-chair was Don Childers, an influential oil and gas magnate who made his fortune supplying regional mining and trucking interests. Childers was a major contributor to Hal Rogers’s campaigns and to the Republican Party of Kentucky. For Rogers, the prison would be the crowning achievement of a career defined by his prodigious ability to bring huge sums of federal money to his home district, much of which, according to a 2011 investigation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, ended up in the hands of a close network of family members, former aides, donors, and business associates. For this talent, Rogers has been dubbed the Prince of Pork.
Tom Sexton was not the prince of anything. He worked for the Sierra Club of Eastern Kentucky, but was better known for bullshitting and rabble-rousing. He claimed to dress according to the Italian principle of sprezzatura, which he liked to translate, in his creaky drawl, as “disheveled elegance.” Sexton once had political ambitions of his own. Inspired by meeting Bill Clinton in Little Rock, he moved home to Whitesburg in 2012 and ran for city council. After tying his opponent (each received 282 votes), he won his seat on the flip of a Sacagawea dollar. Two years later, when he took the fall for an unpopular payroll tax passed by the council, his political career hit the rocks. But hey, that’s democracy. Meanwhile, Sexton told me, Hal Rogers had presided over one of the poorest congressional districts “for damn near 40 years now and made zero progress.” Rogers had won almost every election in a landslide. In the non-landslides, he ran unopposed.
By the March 2016 meeting, Sexton’s council days were long over. On his bookshelf, a picture of him with Bill Clinton had been defaced with devil horns (on the latter). And Sexton and his friends were now about to undertake a much more quixotic task than getting 300 people you’ve known all your life to vote for you. Many of Sexton’s friends had been radicalized by the Black Lives Matter movement, which had forced a profound reckoning over race and punishment in America. As they saw it, the state built prisons as a way of recruiting the rural white working-class into the economy of racist mass incarceration. And this group wasn’t willing to be recruited. By their lights, the moral calculus was straightforward: If you won’t stand against injustice when it could benefit you, what good is your commitment to justice?
For many in the group, the political was also entwined with the personal. They were intimately familiar with the horrors of the carceral system and its entanglement with poverty. One member had a close family friend who was locked up in Ohio. Others had friends in and out of jail. Lill Prosperino, who grew up in Big Cowan, Kentucky, had watched their mother die of a preventable disease because she didn’t have health insurance. Prosperino’s stepdad, a coal miner, was out of work, and Prosperino’s father was in jail. “We exchanged bad jobs for worse,” said Ada Smith, whose cousin works at U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Martin County. The prison wasn’t underground, but it might as well have been. Both jobs were dangerous. Generations of miners sacrificed their lungs and limbs to King Coal. But prison work wasn’t just hard on the body; it was bad for the human soul to be responsible for another person’s unfreedom.
For Sexton, there was also the matter of corruption. Millions of dollars in grants had flowed into eastern Kentucky during Rogers’s four-decade reign. Where had it gone? Not to people in Letcher County. In 2014, Kentucky’s 5th district was rated the worst in the country on “overall well-being.”
“The people who have run roughshod over this place are the same people who get to make the decisions about how to rectify the problems they created,” Sexton explained to me. Don Childers’s oil company, for example, had been cited repeatedly for spilling diesel waste in the North Fork River, which feeds the county’s water supply. The way Sexton saw it, powerful people had destroyed his home, and now powerful people were getting rich failing to fix it. As he put it, “this place has always been a catalyst for making money off of misery.”
In a way, there was a consonance between the magical thinking that enabled the coal economy and the fantasy of an Appalachian renaissance fueled by mass incarceration. Both entailed a mixture of cynicism and naïveté, cruel optimism and myopia. The dream of coal’s never-ending reign required ignoring its very obvious ecological and human consequences. True believers envisioned a glorious future that simply could not come to fruition if extraction continued apace. But the fantasy of perpetual economic growth by carceral means was even darker: an ever-expanding penal colony in the southern mountains, where the rural casualties of deindustrialization are put to work imprisoning the urban poor. Coal and prisons, Sexton figured, were bargains with the same devil. He and his friends wanted another deal altogether.
One thing seasoned organizers know how to do is come up with a group name that doesn’t blurt out their intentions before they can make a pitch. By the end of the March meeting, the group had settled on a sufficiently innocuous name: Letcher Governance Project (LGP). But they weren’t coy about their objective. “The plan was to stop this prison,” Sexton told me. “By whatever means necessary.”
The oft-repeated lament of Appalachia is “rich land, poor people.” According to the “resource curse” thesis, the region’s fate was sealed the moment coal was discovered beneath its forests. Like oil-, gas-, or mineral-rich nations, Kentucky was doomed to suffer the paradoxes of plenty: economic instability, environmental devastation, weak public institutions, rent-seeking elites, and neglect for the welfare of its inhabitants in favor of absentee capital. These tendencies mark the region to this day. But if the first act in the historical drama of modern Appalachia was the wholesale theft of the wealth of the mountains—by rifle, by law, and by deed—the second act, which began in the 1960s, was the story of the failure of political elites, local and national, to rectify the economic and environmental damage already wrought. Unsurprisingly, these planners, developers, and visionaries found myriad ways to enrich themselves in the process of helping “save” the region.
The mountains were born 320 million years ago, when northwest Africa collided with the southeastern coast of Euramerica. Over the epochs, erosion shaved them down into the craggy folds of earth that surround Whitesburg today. Toward the end of the twentieth century, Appalachia underwent a topographic upheaval that was accomplished without the collision of tectonic plates, erosion, or millennia of pressure and heat. In the 1970s and ’80s, mining companies started blowing the tops off Appalachian peaks. According to some estimates, 1.5 million acres of land and 500 mountaintops were leveled or severely reshaped by a strip-mining technique known as “mountaintop removal mining.” Meanwhile, mining companies shoved millions of tons of rubble into the valleys, burying headwater streams and forest.
In the process, coal companies abandoned billions of gallons of toxic sludge in unstable man-made ponds near former mines. In 2000, the wall of a slurry pond in Martin County owned by Massey Energy breached, sending 300 million gallons of toxic runoff into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The spill was 20 times larger than Exxon-Valdez. The water system in the area, subject to years of neglect, has never recovered. Many residents, like Nina McCoy, who saw the creek behind her house run black after the Massey spill, still won’t drink from the tap. “You buy your water and you go on,” she told me. Increased rates of cancer, birth defects, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease have all been correlated with living near mountaintop mining sites.
Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, coal companies should have been required to restore this abused land to its “approximate original contour,” but a loophole in the law allowed them to evade responsibility so long as the reclaimed land could be dedicated to an “equal or better use.” Instead of promising to piece mountains back together, mining companies breezed through the permit process by offering to create level plateaus ideal for industrial development. Flatland was scarce in Appalachia, and policymakers in the 1990s were eager to attract industry as overall coal production declined. But, as historian Ronald Eller writes, “With few exceptions … the promised developments never materialized, and communities were left with miles of deserted, treeless plateaus, poisoned water tables, and a permanently altered landscape.”
Eventually, however, federal officials and local politicians did find an “equal or better use” for some of these eerie, man-made flatlands: prisons.
The rural prison-building boom was not merely an Appalachian phenomenon. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of prisons in the United States ballooned from 511 to more than 1,600. According to the sociologist John Eason, 70 percent of these facilities were built in rural areas. In the cities, racist depictions of “welfare queens” and “super-predators” fueled punitive sentencing policy. In rural America, prison construction was pitched to residents as a kind of carceral Keynesianism, a shot in the arm for deindustrialized economies in small towns and former farmlands. For Appalachia, newly flush with flatland, prisons would serve as “recession-proof” economic development, a solution to the decline of coal and a palliative to the devastated land and people it left behind. As Rogers bragged of the Letcher project in April 2016, “This prison will not be bothered by a recession. It will be there through thick and thin.” In the most sanguine version of this story, prisons would permanently replace extraction as the central axis of a new mono-economy in the mountains.
Over the last three decades, 29 prisons, state and federal, have been built in Appalachia, many of them atop or nearby former mines. Kentucky, one of the states hardest hit by the decline of coal, has also seen a 39 percent increase in the number of state prisoners held in its jails. Local officials use state funds—provided on a per-prisoner basis—as a way of balancing their budgets in the absence of coal severance revenue. For years, the industry line was “Coal keeps the lights on.” But as one jail administrator told Judah Schept and Jack Norton of the Vera Institute, who have studied the use of incarceration as a means of economic development in Kentucky, now “state prisoners keep the lights on.”
Hal Rogers has personally shepherded three prisons into his own district—to Martin, McCreary, and Clay counties. USP Big Sandy, where Ada Smith’s cousin works, was erected on a leveled mountaintop in Martin County, a few miles from the front porch in Inez that Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964, seeking to give a face to his War on Poverty. In the late 1990s, when it was built, Big Sandy was rumored to be the most expensive federal prison ever constructed. It became more expensive when, a year before it opened, one of the 140-foot gun towers started to pitch inward. Perched atop a “reclaimed” strip mine, the $174 million prison was sinking into the blast-softened earth. By 2003, the site had been remediated enough to accept its first batch of prisoners, but locals still call it “Sink-sink.”
Like the other prisons, USP Letcher was advertised as a path to sorely needed economic renewal. Letcher County regularly ranks among the most economically distressed counties in the nation. Roughly 31 percent of its 23,000 residents, and 43 percent of its children, live below the poverty line. Its unemployment rate is more than double the national average. Fox News has called Whitesburg a “poster child for the war on coal.” In 1988, the coal industry provided 1,679 jobs, employing a fifth of the county. Now there are 100. Rogers and the county commission promised 300 badly needed positions inside the prison—and many more building and serving it. “The prison was sold as a silver bullet to fix all the county’s woes,” said Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies, an economic justice nonprofit in Whitesburg. “But it’s dubious whether they actually add anything to the local economy.”
Martin, McCreary, and Clay counties are still waiting for their economic renaissance. Clay County’s penitentiary was built 27 years ago. According to the most recent data, Clay is the seventh-poorest county in America by median household income. McCreary is the 19th, and Martin, whose median household income is $29,239, is not far behind. “The jobs don’t go to local people,” Sexton explained. “These are federal jobs. They bring in their own.” In McCreary, residents only learned of the stringent qualifications for guard jobs a year into the prison’s construction, at a job fair held at the high school. All applicants would need to be under 38, have clean credit and criminal history, and undergo a rigorous physical exam. County residents would be given no preference in hiring, and a four-year degree was “highly” recommended. “How many out-of-work miners do you think fit that bill?” Sexton asked. Even Rogers was eventually forced to admit, regarding USP Letcher, that the Board of Prisons “will bring in most of the people to run the prison until it gets settled in and up and running.”
“This has played out three times over, in three different counties,” Sylvia Ryerson, a scholar and journalist who covered this issue extensively while living in Whitesburg, told me. “It’s the same story repeating again and again. First, a local planning commission forms. Then an aide from Hal Rogers’s office comes. They’re told ‘How about a prison?’ and then they all rally.” At some point, Ryerson discovered, the counties also begin reorganizing their education systems around preparing students for prison jobs, creating what Ryerson called “a different sort of school-to-prison pipeline.” In the summer of 2009, researching her college thesis, Ryerson went to each of the other three counties where Rogers has built federal prisons and collected, via microfiche, the local newspaper record of the entire process. When I interviewed her, photocopies of the microfiche were overflowing from a large cardboard box on her kitchen floor.
Letcher County started out the same. But then everything changed. “In that entire archive,” Ryerson said, pointing at the box, “There is nothing like LGP. I read every single article. There’s no mention of an organized opposition.” For Ryerson, that itself is meaningful. Letcher County’s archive was already different from those of other areas. In this narrow sense, at least, Sexton and his friends were changing history from the moment they first gathered.
LGP’s first action was a far cry from industrial sabotage: They wrote letters.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),* federal agencies are required to fully consider and disclose the environmental consequences of any agency action—like, say, building a prison over a mountaintop coal mine—before taking it. And they’re required to allow the public to comment on drafts of these “Environmental Impact Statements” (or EISs) before they’re finalized. It sounds wonky, but the process is one of the best ways for the public to register discontent with a federal project and, sometimes, to stall it. If relevant environmental risks are identified during the comment period, an agency has to issue a revised EIS, which triggers yet another comment period. “Our strategy was basically this: Delay, delay, delay,” Sexton explained.
LGP organized locals to send emails and letters to the Board of Prisons. When the BOP held a similar comment period in 2015, it received just twelve comments opposing the prison (and 1,157 in favor, many of them form letters circulated by the planning commission). In May 2016, LGP and its allies directed 6,650 opposition comments to the BOP. This time, the commission could only muster 444 in favor. A great number of the anti-prison comments came from an online petition circulated by the Prison Ecology Project, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which maps the “intersections of mass incarceration and environmental degradation.” HRDC, which had taken interest in the prison in 2015, also submitted an opposition letter, co-signed by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Abolitionist Law Center, and Black Lives Matter of Kentucky.
Emily Posner, a civil rights lawyer from Louisiana, sought comments from federal inmates themselves, who would be deeply affected if transferred to a remote prison built on possibly poisoned land. “The government hadn’t provided the text of the EIS to prison libraries,” Posner told me. “So no one inside could participate in the comment process.” She found it cruel, if unsurprising, that the population with the most personal stake in the decision was excluded from the review process.
Eleven inmates from prisons in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Kentucky submitted comments, most of them handwritten. One letter, from an inmate at Big Sandy in Martin County, was written in elegant, leaning script. It described inmates developing stomach bacteria from drinking the prison’s water. When I read it, I thought of Nina McCoy’s creek running black with coal runoff. Big Sandy was just down the road.
“Not being from Kentucky, I must admit if you can get past the hideous razor wire fences and guard lights running 24x7, the view of hills and forests is very beautiful here,” read another letter, from a prisoner in Clay County. “That’s about all this place has going for it, though. It brings me great sadness and anger to find out that the BOP is planning on destroying even more of this beautiful environment by building another ugly-ass toxic waste graveyard.”
The members of LGP felt it was important to include the voices of actual inmates in their organizing. Many of the group’s founders worked on a radio show called Calls From Home, which is broadcast by WMMT in Whitesburg. The weekly show started in 1999, following the construction of Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons just over the border in Wise County, Virginia. Every Monday evening, during a two-hour block of hip-hop, the friends and relatives of people incarcerated in Central Appalachia call into the station from all over the country, leaving messages for their loved ones. Those messages are then broadcast, back-to-back over the air as one continuous stream of human longing. There are seven state and federal penitentiaries within WMMT’s broadcast radius.
The show is powerful, Sylvia Ryerson told me, because it collapses the disparate emotional and spatial geographies of the carceral state. For any concept of human decency to accommodate the prison, those inside must essentially cease to exist, cease to speak. The prison system thrives on invisibility and silence, and on a conceptual break between the places prisoners come from and the places where prisons are built. The abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has encouraged readers to think of these separate locations as a single “abandoned region.” Once you start listening—to call after call after call—it becomes impossible to keep the spaces separate in your mind, to think of prisons as engines of job creation without thinking of them as engines of suffering.
In June 2016, LGP brought its campaign public with a hashtag: #Our444Million. How would you invest $444 million in tax dollars in eastern Kentucky? it asked over Twitter and Facebook, inviting neighbors to share ideas. The slogan encapsulated the message: Why should Hal Rogers and a handful of county elites decide Letcher County’s future? If the federal government was willing to spend $500 million on what Sexton called a “giant monument to human misery,” why couldn’t they spend it on something good, something people really needed?
Ideas poured in. “Someone wanted to build a rigorous folk school for young people,” Prosperino remembered. “Someone else said, ‘Oh, we want a state-of-the-art opioid rehabilitation facility!’ People were dreaming big.” Dee Davis suggested spending a tiny portion of the money to “fix the damn broadband internet”—which did go down twice in my six days in Whitesburg.
In June 2016, Hal Rogers was scheduled to speak at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit. During his invocation, members of LGP unfurled a banner that said, “Prisons Are Not Innovation”—“innovation” was the theme of the conference—while others held signs emblazoned with the hashtag. They were quietly escorted out without fanfare, but the protest made the news. It was likely the first time any mainstream outlet acknowledged the existence of organized opposition to Rogers’s project.
After the demonstration at SOAR, everyone in Whitesburg was suddenly talking about the prison, and it wasn’t clear whether LGP was winning converts. Tarence Ray, another LGP member and co-host with Tom Sexton and Tanya Turner of the Trillbilly Workers’ Party podcast, told me he feared the organizing was interpreted as “scolding” the community. Many accused LGP of looking a gift horse in the mouth. “The [headline] should read ‘Group opposing jobs,’” went a representative comment on an article about the SOAR action. “This attitude of getting a great gift and then saying it’s not good enough is hogwash.”
Ray wished they had done more work to build the movement’s base, to reach outside their circle of “enlightened liberals.” Sexton suggested calling for a referendum—“Let both sides pound the pavement and make their case”—but that didn’t happen. A few members faced uncomfortable conversations with their nonprofit employers, many of whom feared retaliation from Rogers.
The prison’s backers intended to control the narrative entirely, and they showed some willingness to do so with a heavy hand. Sylvia Ryerson, the journalist and scholar, told me of a strange meeting she’d had a few years before with Elwood Cornett and Joe DePriest, then the county’s economic development consultant. (Sexton said of DePriest that the only job he’d created “was his own.”) In 2013, Ryerson had written two op-eds in local papers about the false economic promise of prison-building. Shortly afterward, Cornett invited her to lunch at the Pine Mountain Grill, a restaurant that took its name from the mountain ridge running like a spine along the border of Kentucky and western Virginia. It was owned by Don Childers.
Ryerson said Cornett and DePriest invited her into a back room, separate from the main dining area, where her two articles were laid out on a table. “They said, ‘We’re here to ask you to stop writing about the prison,’” Ryerson recounted. An out-of-towner like Ryerson, they implied, didn’t know what was best for the people of Letcher County. Cornett, who is 82, told me he didn’t recall the meeting with Ryerson. “I can’t really put a face on her, but I do remember the name and the person.” Cornett might have had Ryerson in mind when he told me that he suspected the prison’s opponents were from elsewhere, the kind of Northerners “who come in to save us from ourselves.”
Cornett does remember another meeting in the back room of the Pine Mountain Grill. After the SOAR action, he extended a lunch invitation to Ada Smith, whom he’d known since she was a child. Sexton came along. DePriest came, too. Cornett opened the meeting with a Bible verse. No one (including Cornett) could tell me which, but Sexton said it was the bit about “a house divided.” At one point during the meeting, Don Childers did what Sexton called “an ominous walk-through,” giving them a meaningful look and then continuing on his way.
The meeting was candid and cordial, but the attendees found very little middle ground. At the end of the lunch, Cornett said, “Now I just want you to know, I’ll do everything I can to cause this to happen.” Smith shot back, “And I want you to know, I’ll do everything I can to keep it from happening.” Cornett believed his opponents were sacrificing the immediate needs of their own community to an abstract principle. “They have a philosophy that nobody should be locked up,” he told me. “They’re attached to this fallacious notion that everybody can be rehabilitated.”
Another key to the puzzle fell into place for LGP in the middle of 2016, when they met Mitch Whitaker, a fast-talking, self-taught wildlife rehabilitator. Whitaker lives on a hill in Roxana, on land owned by his family for four generations. When he inherited it, he built a house—two stories, red asphalt shingles, cedarwood siding—at the top of the hill. Lower down there is a greenhouse. And nearest the road, there is a shack where Whitaker keeps the raptors he rehabilitates for a living and the red-tailed hawks he trains to hunt.
“Four years ago, I read in the paper: ‘Roxana Site Chosen for Prison,’” Whitaker told me. “Well, OK, how come nobody talked to me yet?” In August 2015, the BOP called and asked to buy his land. The forgiving grade on his side of the mountain was ideal for a road entrance to USP Letcher. “That was the first I heard from the federal government,” Whitaker said. “After it was all said and done.”
Unlike the other landowners on the site, Whitaker refused to sell.
Soon Elwood Cornett came knocking. Whitaker had known Cornett his entire life; Cornett was Whitaker’s grandmother’s preacher. And he lived just a few miles away, in Blackey. “I tried to tell him he was listening to the wrong people,” Cornett told me. But Whitaker was having none of it. “I told him, ‘Elwood, if you would come up with something decent to use it for, I’ll donate you some of that land up there.’ I could name you a hundred things that we could build up there besides a prison.”
After shaking off Cornett, Whitaker looked around for someone to side with him. “The only people who were in my corner were these abolitionist [law center] folks and Tom’s friends,” Whitaker recalled. “I told them, ‘I’m against it for a different reason than you, but I’m against it.’” He teamed up with LGP, and Emily Posner agreed to represent him.
Whitaker’s reasons for resisting the prison were complex. His opposition issued most fundamentally from his love for the land. His tombstone was already in the ground on the hill, and he intended to be buried under it. He never bought Cornett’s big talk about jobs and economic growth. But he also worried about an influx of prisoners’ relatives into Roxana. (“You transfer Johnny the Slasher down here, then Johnny the Slasher’s family follows Johnny down. You’re bringing in that type of culture.”) Over time, however, working with LGP began to influence his thinking. “I did some research,” he said. “I always thought, if you were in prison, your ass deserved it. But I’ve since found out that once a man goes to prison he can’t vote no more. He’s a useless piece of stuff. He’s hardly a citizen. And then you’ve got this big influx of people who committed lesser crimes.” Whitaker paused for a moment. “I can feel good about being on the opposite side of that. There’s enough people in there.”
Whitaker’s refusal to sell bought LGP time. (Delay, delay, delay.) The Board of Prisons was forced to redraw the footprint for the project. Together, Whitaker and Sexton cooked up a plan to get Sexton’s friend, a bat expert, to survey the land for endangered bats. More environmental groups joined the coalition, and the Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods formed to insist that environmental assessments be made to protect an old-growth forest near the prison site. Meanwhile, Emily Posner prepared a lawsuit against the BOP for failing to give incarcerated federal prisoners the opportunity to participate in the EIS process. Twenty-one prisoners agreed to be plaintiffs.
Despite these efforts, on March 30, 2018, the BOP posted a Record of Decision signaling its intent to begin building the prison. “I rushed back to Whitesburg in the middle of the night crying when I heard,” said Lill Prosperino, who had moved to West Virginia to organize against the construction of a 300-mile natural gas pipeline. “It was horrible.” Sexton agreed it was a deflating moment. “But it’s what we expected. They always had the advantage.” When powerful people wanted something done in eastern Kentucky, it usually happened. Some members of LGP started scheming about buying a plot of land in Roxana themselves—a last ditch effort to stall the project again. But, Sexton said, “we were not hopeful.”
The fight should have ended there. Instead, eight months later, Emily Posner filed suit in federal court. And seven months after that, in June 2019, the BOP reversed its decision.
They had won.
If David shoots an acorn at Goliath’s face, and a tree falls on Goliath while’s he rubbing his forehead, can David take credit for slaying his foe? This was the sort of question Sexton and LGP were left with once the prison plans were canceled. They had thrown some sand in the gears, some acorns at the monster’s head, but other forces landed the decisive blow.
Donald Trump’s election turned everything upside down. The Trump administration was never particularly keen to build USP Letcher. The prison was a massive pork project approved by Obama’s outgoing attorney general, Loretta Lynch. As early as June 2017, Trump’s deputy attorney general at the time, Rod Rosenstein, was citing the declining federal prison population as justification for defunding the project in the Department of Justice budget—as a livid Hal Rogers looked on from the Appropriations Committee dais. Rogers used the last of his juice to get the money back. But the winds shifted against him the following year, when Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a tough-on-crime hardliner, left the administration. A month later, Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act—a pet project of his son-in-law Jared Kushner—which was designed to reduce the federal prison population with a suite of sentencing reforms. In March 2019, Trump’s 2020 budget proposal cut funding for the prison. This time, the administration justified its decision by citing other spending priorities: “maintaining federal law enforcement capacity, improving national security, and enforcing immigration laws.”
Curiously, Trump’s budget also asserted that “prison construction largely does not provide economic growth in rural counties, and in fact, may impede it.” The analysis cited a 2016 paper by the scholars Robert Perdue and Kenneth Sanchagrin. The BOP, in other words, had adopted the opposition’s arguments. (Indeed, Emily Posner had used these same citations in her letters to the bureau.) Perdue was bemused to find out that his scholarship was being cited by Trump’s Department of Justice. “I guess I’m glad to know someone in the Trump administration is reading the Journal of Appalachian Studies,” he told me over the phone. “For what it’s worth, their conclusion is correct. Rural prisons don’t help these communities.”
The about-face was a significant change of position for the Department of Justice, which had long maintained that prisons do spur growth in rural communities. Their purported beneficial impact was the very rationale for the rural prison boom. “By bringing in new federal jobs, stimulation of local businesses and housing, contracting with hospitals and other local vendors, and coordinating with local law enforcement, the BOP improves the economy of the town and the entire region where these rural facilities are located,” the Board of Prisons boasted in a 2016 budget report. Neither the DOJ nor Hal Rogers responded to my requests for comment.
When the BOP rescinded its Record of Decision, citing “new information which may be relevant to the environmental analysis for the proposed action,” Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell assured readers of The Mountain Eagle that he and Rogers would “continue to work to ensure the Letcher County prison project moves forward.” Cornett insisted to me that Rogers had never misled him. “If he’s still at it, we feel pretty good.”
Emily Posner believes her lawsuit contributed to the BOP’s decision. In the course of the proceedings, the defendants repeatedly contradicted their own rationale for building the prison—first by admitting there was no urgent need for beds, and second, by denying that prisons were economically beneficial for rural communities—thereby strengthening the plaintiffs’ case.
But it was difficult to know where the credit was really due. It seemed possible that all the organizing and running around had been pointless, that the die had already been cast. Kushner wanted his reform bill; Trump wanted money for his wall and his detention centers. “We’re still building the carceral state,” Sylvia Ryerson told me. “We’re just shifting our priorities.” The state was focused on criminalizing border crossers rather than on petty crooks and drug dealers in urban centers. In this version of the story, everyone in Letcher County—Sexton, Whitaker, Smith, LGP, Cornett, and even Childers—was a pawn in a game taking place elsewhere, subject to forces well beyond their control.
Then again, had Whitaker sold his land in 2015, had LGP not intervened in the spring of 2016, Obama’s BOP might have broken ground in Roxana before the end of that year.
Successful protest moments often feel this way. Everything is fated until it isn’t; the power structures are immutable until they aren’t. Chance, contingency, personality—these play bigger roles in progressive organizing than the materialists among us tend to admit. “Every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction,” Hannah Arendt declared in 1964. “One deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation.”
As for LGP, its members weren’t exactly celebrating. “What’s there to celebrate?” Sexton asked me. “We’re back where we were.” This sort of beleaguerment dogged the prison’s opponents as well as its supporters. On June 19, on the Mountain Eagle Facebook page, a comment read, “No big surprise. Eastern Kentucky, especially Letcher County will never have anything, no matter who is president. Unfortunately the only answer is to move away.”
“This tells us what we already knew,” Sexton told me. “They never gave a shit about helping this place.” USP Letcher was never an aid package, and its purported benefits to the people of Letcher County were always incidental. As soon as the prison stopped being politically convenient, the people stopped mattering, too.
In the mental geography of the capitalist world system, Appalachia has only ever existed in three ways: as a site of extraction, a site of scarcity, and a site of disposal. “You’re dealing with disposable land, disposable people,” Sexton said. “That’s the reality.” As he sees it, Appalachia is an economic and environmental crucible, a place where capitalism’s worst impulses are cultivated and unleashed—and, later, where the by-products of those processes can be dumped. “Landfills. Prisons. You can hide stuff like that here, put it out of sight.” But such refuse can only invisibly accumulate for so long. Like a coal slurry pond tucked away in the mountains, eventually the walls breach, and everything that’s been buried there comes rushing out.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly described NEPA as the National Economic Policy Act.