Attorney General Eric Holder's Aug. 12 announcement that the U.S. Department of Justice will work to reduce the population of inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is a welcome development.
Even as Holder arrives late to an issue that many have been highlighting for decades, it may now be possible to glimpse the twilight of our system of mass incarceration — the term many use to describe the United States' world-leading prison population (now more than 2.4 million) and rate of incarceration (753 out of every 100,000 people).
Indeed, while the United States accounts for five percent of the global population, we house 25 percent of the world's prisoners. In comparison, consider that the United States has as many people in prison and jail as the next two largest incarcerating countries — Russia and China — combined. It is well past time to decarcerate, close prisons and reinvest in our communities.
But not everyone seems to agree.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and the Letcher County Planning Commission are working hard to attract a federal prison. If they succeed, it would be the sixth federal prison built in central Appalachia since 1992. An additional 10 state and private facilities operate in the region. In total, Eastern Kentucky is home to eight — and now possibly nine — prisons.
In pushing for a new federal facility, Rogers wants to attach the future of his district to prison building and operation. It is time to ask if Rogers' vision is one toward which Kentuckians should strive. Kentuckians already sent a clear message about reducing our state prison population and reinvesting in communities through the passage of House Bill 463. What alternative and bright futures for Appalachia might Rogers' vision preclude?
Mass incarceration has occurred for numerous reasons, none of which have to do with rising crime rates.
Prison growth has largely followed the "tough on crime" legislative changes at the state and federal level during the last three decades of the 20th century that put more people, disproportionately poor people of color, behind bars and for longer periods of time than anywhere in history. As prisons began to proliferate to handle the growing number of prisoners, politicians and other boosters began marketing prisons to rural communities as generators of economic development.
But prisons are not solutions to deeply structured political-economic problems. Instead of investing in long-term and living wage jobs, education and social services in urban communities, we incarcerate their residents on the faulty, classist and racist premise of fighting crime and providing safety. Instead of investing in jobs, education and social services in our rural communities, we build prisons on the faulty premise that they will bring the employment and fund the rest.
This latter claim that prison growth generates employment has led to the rise of prisons in the Appalachian landscape and begets a central question: what, in fact, do prisons bring to the communities in which they reside? Rogers and other supporters of the Letcher County facility promise middle class salaries and federal benefits.
It is our responsibility as scholars to contextualize and examine this pie-in-the sky pitch: the purported "common sense" of prisons bringing jobs and economic growth to rural communities belies a growing body of research that suggests just the opposite.
In one major study, researchers from Washington State University looked at the economic impact of prison growth on rural counties in the United States from 1969 to 2004. The study concluded that not only did prisons fail to bring prosperity or growth to the areas in which they were located, but also, in some cases, prisons caused further economic depression, especially in vulnerable counties with low levels of educational achievement.
According to the 2012 census, Letcher County has a 26 percent poverty rate and only 10 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree. But national level analyses simply corroborate what many in Appalachia already know about the impact of a prison on an economy. Three Eastern Kentucky counties with federal prisons remain three of the poorest in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. The claim that prisons bring economic growth is no longer dubious, but now outright disingenuous.
It is a powerful and desperate context that buttresses prison siting as a hopeful solution to communities in crisis. Letcher County residents and others in Appalachia need jobs, stable incomes and economic development. They are right to demand that Rogers fight for a real economic future for his constituents. But the evidence contradicts his singular solution; Kentuckians must demand better.
As prisons thrived following tough-on-crime sentencing, they can also close following movements to decarcerate. Letcher County and Appalachia should sever their futures from the politics of prison building. Doing so is economically sound and prescient, politically just and morally necessary.
Judah Schept is an assistant professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University. This commentary was also signed by 13 colleagues.