Understanding the power behind the prison system

Author of Prison Land

In June, the federal government announced that it will be rescinding funding for a new federal penitentiary in Letcher County, Kentucky, finally putting to rest a project more than fifteen years in the making. 

The proposed maximum-security prison was to be built atop a former surface mine, like most of the other prisons that dot this part of coal country. As I recount in my book, Prison Land, prison construction has seen a boom in this region over the past twenty years, as politicians and developers trade on the region’s bleak economic fortunes by hitching local hopes for economic revival to the cynical promise of new jobs in the prison industry. 

Of these prison champions, perhaps none has been as vocal as Republican Congressman Hal Rogers, who has made the promotion of carceral infrastructure as an economic development strategy a cornerstone of his political career. 

While the Trump administration’s revocation of previously approved funding had Rogers in arrears, it’s local activists that can really take credit for the project’s defeat. Folks on the ground have been mobilizing against the new federal penitentiary for as long as it has been in planning, but organizing has intensified in recent years. 

In a powerful demonstration of effective coalition building, local grassroots organizations like the Letcher Governance Project and the Prison Ecology project have made common cause with national environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity to connect the human fallout of yet another penitentiary in the region to the ecological devastation it would create. As these groups have continued to remind us, prison development serves the safety and security of no one, including the regions’ poor and unemployed. What it does do is contaminate local watersheds, pollute the air, and threaten endangered wildlife habitats. 

Together, the efforts of these groups succeeded in stalling the proposed Letcher County penitentiary for two and a half years, just enough time to frustrate the feds enough to scrap funding for the proposed facility once and for all.   

Alliances between anti-prison activism and environmental justice advocates is not new. The Mothers of East L.A. in the 1990s and the California Prison Moratorium Project in the 2000s are just two other examples of activist groups on the frontlines against prison expansion building coalitions with environmental groups to expose the links between resource extraction and human confinement. 

These alliances are predicated on a powerful and necessary preposition: just as the climate crisis cannot be resolved without major transformations in the labor economy, investments in public infrastructure, and the reining in of massive social inequality, mass incarceration and criminalization won’t end without a wholesale restructuring of the economic imperatives and social relations that organize our lives. I make a similar argument in my book, journeying across the country to map the ways in which the US prison system can be understood as a central institution of the racial capitalist state. This includes thinking about the prison system’s role in upholding real estate profits and property relations, warehousing and managing surplus labor, and giving continued cover to racial inequalities through the spurious and reified category of the “criminal.”

With the proposed Green New Deal gaining popularity, especially among young people facing an ever more catastrophic future, now is the time to heed the lessons of the prison abolition movement and its allies in environmental justice explicitly. This begins with recognizing once and for all that mass incarceration has never been about crime or security public safety, and that the criminal justice system is too narrow a lens through which to understand, let alone challenge, America’s racist and classist prison system. Coalition building is not just smart strategy in challenging crises like mass incarceration and climate change, it is also an accurate representation of the ways that these issues intersect and interact with each other. 

The point, of course, is to win, which we can do when we understand how our commitments to ecological and social justice link up with each other. Activists are demonstrating the power of aligning our struggles – one habitat destroying federal penitentiary at a time.


Brett Story is a documentary filmmaker, geographer, and assistant professor in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University. Her award-winning film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is based on the same research that informs Prison Land.

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