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Rural Prison Development Meets Water Crises

Rural Prison Bids 

In 2003, the most expensive federal prison to ever be built opened in Martin County, Kentucky near Inez. The project cost 149 million dollars. United States Penitentiary Big Sandy (USP Big Sandy) sits atop an abandoned Mountaintop Removal Site (MTR). Named after the nearby Big Sandy River, whose Shawnee name is Michechobekasepe, USP Big Sandy is just one of many federal prisons built upon or near Appalachian land that has been devastated by extractive strip mining. Since 1989, 29 federal prisons have been built in Central Appalachia [1]. 

USP Big Sandy, from Federal Bureau of Prisons 

The 1990s saw the proliferation of prisons across the rural United States [1]. During that time, bidding competitions to attract prisons into Appalachian towns became commonplace, and local policy makers believed prison construction would be a lifeline for economic growth [2]. For example, when a mining explosion led to a disastrous coal slurry spill in Martin County’s watershed in 2000, repairing and developing the District water infrastructure hinged on the bid for USP Big Sandy. Today, community members in Martin County express ongoing concerns with District funding directed towards the federal prison instead of directed towards addressing systemic and infrastructural bases of the water crisis. 

Research has shown that prison construction and operation does not deliver on economic development promises for rural towns. Further, any economic development promise of prisons has always hinged on the suffering of one’s fellow humans, particularly Black Americans, inside the prison walls [1]. This article hopes to distill scholarship on how the building of prisons in Appalachia does not empower rural communities nor their pressing concerns. In doing so, it hopes to highlight some implications prison development has had for the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky.  

Failed Promises for Local Economies  

In 2016, Drs. Perdue and Sanchagrin at Appalachian State University published a statistical analysis, identifying whether prisons help raise incomes and lower poverty rates in Appalachian counties. The authors found that the effect of prison building in Central Appalachia is significantly negative. In Central Appalachian counties where prisons were built from the years 1989 to 2013, the average income-adjusted per capita income was $836 less than in Central Appalachian counties where prisons were not built[1]. 

The authors also found that prison counties in Central Appalachia continue to have higher poverty rates than counties without a prison, even as unemployment tends to go down with jobs created to serve the industry. Perdue and Sanchagrin suggest that poverty persists even with lowered unemployment because jobs created for locals tend to be low-paying and lacking in benefits [1]. Employing local and area residents is not a priority for federal prisons [2]. When it comes to contracting, large national prison design companies, such as PJ Dick in the case of Martin County, are the main beneficiaries. These companies are familiar with what scholars have identified as the Bureau of Prison’s “building philosophy,” and they employ their own design personnel, neglecting community workforces [2]. 

Drs. Blankenship and Yanarella at Kentucky State University and University of Kentucky studied prison recruitment as a policy tool for local economic development. They note that higher paying management and correctional positions within prisons require experience and training that most local residents in prison counties do not have. The majority of employees working in federal prisons do not reside in the counties housing the prisons [2]. 

Of the 400 employees projected to work for the Martin County prison site in its planning, 176 were slated to be Bureau of Prison employees brought in from elsewhere and only 74 to be local hires. Prisons also profit from exploiting incarcerated individuals for inexpensive labor, further revealing how they don’t intend to create local jobs. In Kentucky, the U.S. Corrections Corporation relied upon unpaid prison labor on public and private construction projects for years, and the company received financial remuneration for doing so [2].

As seen with employment and hiring realities, federal prisons do not stimulate local economies. USP Big Sandy and other federal prisons are not required to pay real estate taxes to the towns in which they are located, so communities like Martin County gain no direct tax benefit from site location of federal penitentiaries other than taxes on wages of workers residing in the town. But again, the majority of federal prison employees drive into rural towns from larger areas [2]. 

The prison-industrial complex further attracts chain stores that notoriously pay low-wages into towns, rather than local retailers, and where federal prisons have been built, most locally owned businesses have closed [2]. In Martin County, seven McDonalds and seven Walmarts dot a circumference around USP Big Sandy. 

Figure 1. Google Maps result for McDonalds and Walmart in Martin County. 

With service contracts for prison food supply or inmate personal necessities, local businesses are also closed out of long-term deals. Given rigid standards required by the Bureau of Prisons, few local businesses are eligible to apply for such service contracts. Across Central Appalachia, the majority of prison service and supply contracts have been awarded to large, non-local or regional companies [2]. The development of federal penitentiaries has not bolstered local economies.

An Exacerbated Water Crisis

Seventeen years after the construction of USP Big Sandy, Martin County residents continue to face a water crisis. Decision makers, however, promised revenue from the penitentiary would save the town and repair the water infrastructure. 

A pilot study jointly conducted by scientists at University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment and citizen scientists with Martin County Concerned Citizens (MCCC) reports that in 2020, disinfection byproducts still pollute Martin County’s tap water and exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum contamination levels [3]. A few months earlier, an affordability study conducted by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in 2019 found that the Martin County Water District’s rate increases routinely leave residents with an unaffordable cost of water, exceeding the EPA standard for living [4]. 

Drs. Yanarella and Blankenship emphasize how the decision to construct prisons can influence the opportunity costs of investing in other avenues for community revitalization. They find that it is possible and likely that a large prison project can increase a community’s tax base while producing a growing burden on its infrastructure. Studies have found prisons lead to infrastructural problems far exceeding tax benefits gained from their construction [2]. This insight rings true when looking at what has happened with the water crisis alongside the federal prison in Martin County. 

In 2002, Martin County entered into a Joint Operations Agreement with the nearby town of Prestonsburg to pump water to the federal prison site. The agreement states that Prestonsburg and the Martin County Water District will each provide “up to 50% of the demand for the Big Sandy Federal Prison.” In an official letter to the Public Service Commission in 2017, the CEO of Prestonsburg Utilities Company writes that, “Since the inception of the service, Prestonsburg has been the predominant supplier of potable/fire protection water to its customer, the Big Sandy Federal Prison with very little assistance from the District.” 

But the Bureau of Prisons knew from the beginning that Martin County’s water supply was inadequate for the prison. Reporting has found that prisons, in fact, tend to be built upon or near hazardous water supplies, with incarcerated people forced to drink contaminated water. In a 2002 letter to Prestonsburg, the Bureau asked Prestonsburg to confirm its utilities would be able to supply adequate water, given nearby water problems in Martin County. Ever since, the Martin County Water District has not only failed to accrue revenue from the federal prison but it has also entered into $800,000 of debt due to its failed abilities to provide for USP Big Sandy. 

In a 2017 letter to the Public Service Commission, Martin County Water District customer Gary Ball wrote, “In regards to a number of complaints I have received lately from customers of the Martin County Water District regarding low water pressure at various times, I pose this question for the commission. I suspect these instances are due to the district attempting to pump water to the U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy when it is obvious it has the inability to do so without cutting water supply somewhere in its distribution system.” 

While the Water District struggles to meet the demands of the prison complex, residents’ continue to face challenges with water affordability, quality, and reliability. These two realities are not unrelated. 

In a 2019 op-ed in the Lexington Herald Leader, retired Martin County science teacher and Chairwoman of the Martin County Concerned Citizens Nina McCoy wrote, “In 2000, $2.55 million was designated to get water to a new federal prison and an industrial park on a taxpayer-funded ‘reclaimed’ mountaintop removal site. Another $3 million promised to ‘totally’ renovate the water plant, but was purportedly used for a new raw water intake instead. Fifteen years later, $4 million of the new money has been earmarked to get water to the same federal prison and industrial park because the previous system was so poorly done that it is dangerous.” 

Dr. Judah Schept at Eastern Kentucky University further explains this connection in the introduction to his forthcoming book Cages in the Coalfields: “The money to alleviate the water crisis of today is there, it just resides in the wrong place, lining the pockets of coal executives and sunk into the infrastructures of enclosure and captivity. The histories and legacies of the wars on poverty and crime, as well as the changes to the coal industry, accumulated and converged in the building and operation of USP Big Sandy on an abandoned MTR site” [5].  

For all the ways that development research has shown that prisons negatively impact the communities they reside in, we may also think of these failures as part of a continued neglect dealt to marginalized populations, both those in rural communities and those incarcerated within prison walls. Take USP Big Sandy and Martin County’s imminent water crisis: federal prison building projects are certainly not tools for rural economic development. Rather, they contribute burdens to communities in which they reside. In Martin County and beyond, much further investigation is required into how uses of public revenue for rural development exacerbate existing burdens communities face, such as a pressing and chronic water crisis. 

Scholarship Referenced  

[1] Robert Todd Perdue and Kenneth Sanchagrin (2016) “Imprisoning Appalachia: The Socioeconomic Impacts of Prison Development.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 23(2).

[2] Ernest Yanarella and Susan Blankenship (2007) “Big House on the Rural Landscape: Prison Recruitment as a policy tool of local economic development.” Journal of Appalachian Studies. Vol. 12(2). 

[3] Jason Unrine et. al (2020) “Preliminary Technical Report: The Martin County Kentucky Community-Engaged Drinking Water Health Pilot Study.” University of Kentucky. 

[4] Mary Cromer and Ricki Draper (2019) “Drinking Water Affordability Crisis, Martin County, Kentucky.” Appalachian Citizens Law Center. 

[5] Judah Schept (Forthcoming) Cages in the Coalfields: Extraction and Disposal in Carceral America. NYU Press. 

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