Protesters block traffic during march against toxic prisons. Credit: Carimah Townes.

Kentucky lawmakers want to revitalize coal country by building a prison

Mitch Whitaker remembers well when Letcher County, Kentucky was booming with mining jobs. In fact, coal mines like the one near the land that Whitaker’s family has owned for generations made the town so busy that miners had three shifts running through the day.

“Everything was booming,” the 55-year-old environmentalist told ThinkProgress.

But that was years ago, before the energy market shifted its attention to natural gas as coal was increasingly regulated and considered too dirty of a resource in a warming planet. Currently, there are less than 100 coal mine jobs after the recent closing of a small contract mine.

Now, local lawmakers are promising everything is about to get better — thanks to a large federal prison planned for the area.

Whitaker has been asked to sell 30 acres of his property, where he rehabilitates birds, for the project.

“We’ve experienced booms and busts,” he said, “but nothing like this.”

The maximum-security, 700-acre facility will cost $444 million to construct and is expected to hold 1,088 detainees. The facility will be erected in Whitesburg, a town that suffers from high unemployment due to the gradual loss of coal mining jobs. Rep. Hal Rogers (R), who’s spearheaded efforts to build the prison, boasts that the prisons will offer hundreds of employment opportunities, even though prisons in nearby counties haven’t delivered on the jobs they once promised.

Despite the economic prospects, there’s a looming cost of constructing the facility in Letcher County: it’ll be built on a mountaintop coal removal site. Such sites are usually full of dangerous — and sometimes deadly — toxins. Any prisoners confined there are at risk of exposure and a long list of chronic health problems.

On Monday, approximately 60 protesters from all over the country flocked to the nation’s capital to protest the Letcher County facility, as well as prisons built near — or directly on top of — toxic wastelands throughout the U.S. The protesters are part of a growing movement of environmentalists and criminal justice advocates campaigning against inhumane prison conditions. Like Whitaker, they too believe the prison will further devastate the land and local economy in Letcher.

“It brings together two really core issues going on in the U.S. and the world right now,” Paige Williams, an organizer with the Prison Ecology Project, explained to ThinkProgress. “The prison industrial complex and environmental degradation go hand in hand, but that intersection isn’t brought to light.”

Poisoned land

The Letcher County prison will be built right in the heart of coal country in Appalachia, on top of a former mountaintop removal site where coal was extracted. Mountaintop mining blows off the tops of mountains in order to reach coal seams inside. The process creates a huge amount of toxic waste and leaves devastation in its wake: heavy metals get released into the surrounding ecosystem, forests are razed to the ground, and streams are poisoned if not buried entirely. A cocktail of pollutants floods the air and water for hundreds of miles.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) insists that “no health and safety impacts are anticipated.” But numerous studies cited by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) link coal mining sites to devastating health consequences. Research has shown that people who live near mountaintop removal sites have a higher rate of cardiovascular disease mortality and suffer from more physical and mental health problems than people living in other Appalachian communities.

“Prisons located near other coal-related processing facilities have resulted in widespread prisoner health problems including respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal problems, dermatological conditions and thyroid disorders, indicating health impacts which affect prisoners in a unique way related to their conditions of confinement,” the HRDC explained.

According to the organization, one of the water sources that’s supposed to supply the future prison is also known for contaminants. Hepatitis A, a condition that’s transmitted via water ingestion, is roughly two times more common in Letcher County than in the rest of the country.

Nevertheless, Rogers and local officials contend a thorough environmental study was conducted by the BOP prior to deciding on the final prison location.  

Life inside

Because the Letcher County prison hasn’t been built yet, people can only offer warnings about what could happen to future detainees there. But other inmates doing time near another massive waste dump in rural Pennsylvania paint a clear picture of what life is like for people living in close proximity to coal toxins.

The State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, a state-run maximum security prison is located near “about 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds, and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste,” according to an investigation by human rights groups.

Inmates at SCI Fayette are exposed to coal ash that’s blown from trucks into the air. Coal ash, which contains carcinogens like arsenic, lead, mercury, and others, is the byproduct of burning coal for heat or energy from coal plants across the region. It’s the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States.

When investigators from the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Human Rights Coalition (HRC), and the Center for Coalfield Justice distributed surveys to the prisoners, they were alarmed with the answers provided by 63 survey respondents as well as 12 people who followed up with letters detailing their medical problems.

Sixty-one people said they had some form of respiratory, throat, or sinus condition — including but not limited to lung infections, breathing problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cysts in their airways. Fifty-one people said they’ve suffered from gastrointestinal difficulties, such as ulcers, vomiting, and diarrhea, while 39 suffered from agonizing skin problems. The majority of people surveyed explained that they didn’t have the same medical problems before their imprisonment, and were actually deemed healthy by medical professionals upon entry.

One prisoner wrote:

“One day I woke up and it was difficult for me to walk and see. This continued for a couple of days and my symptoms got worse. I started getting dizzy and I couldn’t keep my balance and I started getting a numbing feeling in the left side of my body… I started getting more symptoms including loss of function in my arms and legs, blurry vision, confusion, memory loss, hair loss, laziness, diarrhea, tingling sensations in my face, arms, and legs, difficulty walking, extreme weight loss, and non stop muscle spasms….There are dozens of other inmates who have just recently come down with the same thyroid condition I have…”

These kinds of symptoms can quickly turn fatal when you’re in prison, where getting even basic medical care is an uphill battle. Multiple people reported that medical staff under-diagnosed patients, refused to pay for surgeries or order scans, lied about medications, accused prisoners of faking their conditions, and under-medicated those with serious illnesses.

Another inmate recounted:

After six to nine months here, I began to develop more frequent shortness of breath and heavy mucus discharge. It became so chronic that I had to have breathing treatments daily — morning and evening. The cough became so violent that I developed a chronic hoarseness and scratchy throat. To this day I can barely talk. I was told by the medical department it was just a “scratchy throat — gargle with warm salt water….A year later, I found out that it was far more than a scratchy throat! It was around this time that I discovered a growth, in my mouth, under my tongue. The dental surgeon removed it and sent it out for biopsy and it came back negative; however, the growth came back in two weeks, twice as big. This time after a second biopsy, it came back positive — I had cancer.

Several inmates who were transferred to other facilities said their health drastically improved once they left SCI Fayette. “When I took showers, I noted that my eyes would be burning and my vision would be blurred for about 15 minutes, afterwards, and it would feel like sand was in my eyes,” a third inmate wrote. “These symptoms have been going on almost since the time I came into Fayette, but now that I’m at [another prison] I’m eating every meal, working out every day, and experiencing no headaches[.]”

Opponents of the Letcher County facility fear that future prisoners will suffer the same way.

“The degree of toxins, prisons being built on superfund sites, the quality of water that people drink in prisons — it’s appalling,” Ann Sundberg, one of the demonstrators outside the BOP Monday, said. “I feel like most Americans, if they knew what the conditions were, would be absolutely appalled.”

Protester Alyssa Radwick echoed those concerns. Prisoners “don’t have just hearings, and then they’re put into these prisons that are put on landfills. These landfills are toxic. They’re harming their respiratory health, their digestive health, their mental health…They’re everyday people who deserve a chance,” she said. 

Pushing back

Despite the risks, local lawmakers and prison officials are pitching the Letcher County facility as an investment that will revitalize eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“This facility will provide hundreds of good paying, full-time jobs as our region struggles to rebound from the devastating loss of more than 10,000 coal mining jobs over the last eight years,” Rogers wrote in a February press release. “It’s also a testament to the perseverance and hard work of the Letcher County Planning Commission that has worked diligently to bring a federal prison to Letcher County.”

Whitaker and fellow Letcher residents don’t believe the hype.

“All of a sudden they are coming back in there to re-tear up this land and expose it all again,” Whitaker said. “I just don’t want to give my property up that I’ve spent an entire lifetime paying for and working on, for them to just to throw me a couple thousand bucks for my property and put a prison in my back door.”

He doesn’t anticipate reaping the benefits of proposed economic growth in the area. But he’s also concerned about the environmental devastation to his land, if he’s forced to give it up for the facility.

As the mining industry pulls out of the county, the environment has been given some breathing room to recover from the burden of industry. Hills and valleys surrounding Whitaker’s land have been reclaimed by nature to the point that deer and elk can now be seen.

“I have large, old-growth oak trees on my land that will be cut for the construction of this prison,” he wrote in an op-ed for Lexington Herald Leader. “The Kentucky River, which winds around the site, will be disturbed with sedimentation from road construction to the facility. And the bird rehabilitation program that we have fought hard to preserve will suffer greatly.”

The Letcher Governance Project, a group of local organizers fighting the project to which Whitaker belongs, cites three Kentucky prisons built in the past that have failed to deliver on the promise of bringing new jobs to the state

Last week, project members staged a protest the SOAR Innovation Summit in Kentucky, a convening of Appalachian stakeholders who hope to “expand job creation, enhance regional opportunity, innovation, and identity, improve the quality of life” in the region. The purpose of the demonstration was to show that the Letcher County community doesn’t support the prison, contrary to what Rogers and local officials claim.

Elizabeth Sanders, another organizer with the project, told ThinkProgress that addressing the economics of a large prison is the best way to approach this subject. When people know what their tax dollars are going toward and understand that the money that goes into building and operating a prison is money that isn’t going to social services for the community, their interest in the problem jumps.

“That’s the way to open up dialogue with folks, to be able to oppose it on those grounds and also getting folks to think creatively about what we want our future to look like in east Kentucky,” she said. “If we’re saying we don’t want a prison here, then what do we want? Folks are really struggling and need some options.”

But Sanders says residents recognize that the prison’s construction will wreak havoc on the community in many different ways, hurting not just the economy but public health and the environment.

“It’s all of the above. Folks who live there are very aware of the effects of mountaintop removal — what it does to folks, what it means for the land. We love the place we live,” she said. 

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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