Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia

Event details: As the United States began the project of mass incarceration, rural communities turned to building prisons as a strategy for economic development. More than 350 prisons have been built in the U.S. since 1980, with certain regions of the country accounting for large shares of this dramatic growth. Central Appalachia is one such region; there are eight prisons alone in Eastern Kentucky. Drawing from his recent book Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia (New York University Press, 2022), the talk will examine this dense carceral geography, paying particular attention to the purported role of the prisons to address crises of both production and social reproduction in the wake of the collapse of the coal industry. The talk will also explore recent developments, including the devastating floods of 2022 and the ongoing attempt to build the newest federal prison in the region in Letcher County, the center of the flood zone. A coalition of activists defeated a proposal for construction in 2019, a victory which established rural Appalachia as a primary battlefront in the struggle against mass incarceration. But in a testament to the arrogant tenacity of the carceral state, the Bureau of Prisons announced the resumption of its efforts to construct a prison in the county just two months after the floods. Schept’s talk will draw together these and other examples from his book in order to argue for the importance of linking the prison boom to the extraction and disposal processes that have long categorized dominant development strategies for the region.

About the Speaker:
Judah Schept is a Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Grounded in the interdisciplinary field of Critical Prison Studies, his work examines the history, political economy, and cultural logics of the carceral state. He is the author of Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia (New York University Press, 2022) and Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion (New York University Press, 2015). He is co-editor of The Jail is Everywhere: Fighting the New Geography of Mass Incarceration (Verso Books, 2024). His writing can also be found in journals such as Radical Criminology, Theoretical Criminology, Punishment and Society, Social Justice, Crime, Media, Culture, Inquest, and the Boston Review. Judah serves as the book review editor for Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order. He has been active with numerous organizations and campaigns centered on decarceration, decriminalization, and abolition. He holds a PhD from Indiana University and a BA from Vassar College.