Must-Read: The Failed Promise of Prisons in Appalachia

Yesterday, the Daily Yonder featured an excellent, incisive piece of journalism on the proposed federal prison for Letcher County, Kentucky. Sylvia Ryerson of Appalshop asks if this is really the kind of economic development the region needs – if it even is economic development at all. Like our long history of bending over backwards to attract outside industries that often result in empty industrial parks, the legacy of federal prisons in Kentucky is not a bright one. Ryerson examines the prison in McCreary County, which was built in the late 1990s with the promise of jobs, local spending and prosperity for one of the poorest counties in Kentucky:

Bureau of Prison employees with prior work experience took most of the positions (including almost all of the higher paid jobs). Most live outside McCreary County. They did not buy local real estate, shop at local businesses or put their children in the county school system. Once the prison opened it chose to purchase supplies from national wholesalers, not local businesses. And the county’s property tax base was permanently reduced when the prison land transferred from private ownership to the federal government.

…Central Appalachia's experience is not unique. Prisons don't work as economic development engines, researchers say. One study analyzed data on every rural county in the United States, with or without a prison, from 1969-2004. The report concluded: “We find no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth. In fact we provide evidence that prison construction has impeded economic growth in rural counties that have been growing at a slow pace.”

So why is Letcher County seeking to attract this prison? Many folks feel like eonomically depressed places "can't afford to be picky," says Ryerson in the article. But what if they were? What if, instead of taking what crumbs are thrown, Central Appalachia chooses to take a different path? "But at every moment, development is a choice, not predetermined. And sometimes the first step is simply refusing the terms offered – and insisting, regardless of so-called 'rational thinking,' that there are more rational options." 

What are those options? We talk about them all the time here on the blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. And Ryerson calls out a number of them as well: 

A critical part of that is supporting the policies (and the people pushing them forward from the grassroots level) that will make a wide variety of businesses here in the mountains viable and competitive – like new energy policy that would keep renewable energy jobs in state, like creating a permanent coal severance tax fund that would use our assets from the past and present to build a new economy, like insuring high-speed Internet that is accessible and affordable up every hollow. Eastern Kentuckians have a wealth of good ideas. But if such enormous amounts of time and resources continue to go in a top-down process toward siting new prisons and continuing to operate the ones we already have, there will not be much left over to build anything else.

Why, she asks, are we not putting the same effort into creating and supporting new local businesses? Or a drug rehabilitation center? Because we also need leadership – real leadership with new ideas that believes in the promise of Appalachia. Ryerson pulls no punches: 

It is an outrage that when our local leaders asked for help from our member of Congress, Hal Rogers, the only federal support – the only major “job creating plan” – they were offered was a 960-bed high-security prison with a 256-bed work camp. Take it or leave it. A jobs program with no guarantee of jobs, a supposed path out of poverty that requires the poverty of others – a plan that will actually make us poorer.

You absolutely need to read the entire article. It's the kind of call-to-action journalism Central Appalachia needs more of – the question is, are our decision-makers listening?