Mass Incarceration vs. Rural Appalachia

by Panagioti Tsolkas / Earth Island Journal


A mountaintop removal mine in Wise County, Virginia. The federal Bureau of Prisons wants to build a prison over a similarly strip-mined parcel of land in neighboring Kentucky which is still being drilled for gas, and which is located amid a habitat for dozens of endangered species.

The United States Bureau of Prisons is trying to build a new, massive maximum-security prison in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky — and there’s a growing movement to stop it.

The prison industry in the US has grown in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years— a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ’90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers. The industry seems like an unstoppable machine, plowing forward at breakneck speed on the path that made the world’s largest prison population.

Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. Prisoners in nations across the world average at 155 per 100,000 people. And in the US, Southern states rule the chart. Viewing these states as countries themselves,  Kentucky ranks at lucky number seven.

“Sounds terrible…” you may be thinking, “But what does it have to do with the environment?”

Well, this seemingly impenetrable multi-billion dollar bi-partisan government-driven industry does have a weak point: it’s a well-verified ecological mess. For a 10-year period of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Prison Initiative, prison after prison that the EPA’s inspected in the Mid-Atlantic region was plagued with violations. Violations included air and water pollution, inadequate hazardous waste management and failing spill control prevention for toxic materials.

From the initial breaking ground on construction in rural and wild places to the inevitable sewage problem from operating chronically over-populated facilities — running a prison is dirty business. And when you factor in the plethora of environmental justice issues facing the prisoners, disproportionately low-income and people of color, it becomes an outright nightmare.

Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the Bureau of Prisons’ latest plan for a new maximum-security federal prison is on a former mountaintop removal coal mine site, which is still being drilled for gas, and which is located amid a habitat for dozens of endangered species. Where else but Appalachia?

The proposed half a billion dollar facility is to be located in Kentucky’s Letcher County. If built, this would be the fourth new federal prison in eastern Kentucky, and the sixth federal prison built in Central Appalachia, since 1992, making the region one of the most concentrated areas of prison growth in the country.

In March of this year, the Human Rights Defense Center’s new Prison Ecology Project joined the fight against the proposed prison. So far, opposition to the Bureau of Prison’s plans have been led primarily by the statewide grassroots nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC),  which is opposed to “prison expansion as a form of economic development.”

The prison industry and its proponents say the prison will bring jobs and economic growth to Letcher County, which is one of the many regions in eastern Kentucky suffering from the decline of the coal industry. But past studies have shown that new prisons do not improve the local economy and in most cases appear to harm rather than benefit host communities. That certainly seems to be the case in Kentucky’s McCreary, Clay, and Martin counties.

In 2013, when the Bureau of Prisons began seeking public input about the project,  KFTC outlined a series of questions and concerns, including questions about the projected economic benefits, the stability of the reclaimed mine site, and possible environmental impacts of the new prison. In its statement to the bureau the KFTC said: “It’s clear we need economic transition in our county and region, but history shows that prisons have not provided that. And, when we talk about transition, we desire a transition that is equitable to all people, not just those at the top.”

But when the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project was released earlier this year, it was clear that these concerns had fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the Bureau of Prisons went so far as to state that “scoping comments were in support of the project with no major issues or concerns raised.” (Emphasis added.)

Luckily, attorney and criminal justice activist Stephen Raher was among those who filed comments in 2013. A former co-coordinator of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Raher has been tracking environmental issues related to the Bureau of Prisons facilities for over a decade. Perhaps the flagrant disregard for his input added some fuel to his fire, because Raher then spearheaded a comment on the Letcher proposal that carried a passion rare in the world of administrative legalese. Leading with the quote by Caudill mentioned above, he tore into the Bureau of Prisons for taking advantage of the people and land of Appalachia with a new form of industrial exploitation:

“The EIS announces BOP’s plans to continue with a new type of extractive activity. BOP’s proposed project would take 1,200 prisoners, extracted from their homes and neighborhoods, and import them into Letcher County. Despite the EIS’s glib promises of employment and economic activity, Letcher County and surrounding environments would be forced to absorb the substantial environmental consequence.”

Raher and HRDC staff co-authored the comment, which was signed by  individuals and organizations from across the country. The Bureau of Prison’s charade of full support was blown.

The comment highlighted regional water quality records which show a history of water contamination from sources that would provide water to the prison, including heavy metals associated with mining as well as fecal coliform from defective septic systems. It also noted heightened presence of radon in the area, which often associated with coal and gas extraction.

Additionally, the comment noted that the Bureau of Prisons indicates intent to build an e-waste recycling factory run on prison labor on the site, but provides no information about how it will deal with the hazardous waste that these facilities have a history of creating.

None of these concerns seemed to slow the Bureau down — If anything, the opposite. The agency turned its draft Environmental Impact Statement into a final EIS in record speed. By mid-summer, it was ready to plow forward with the project, once again ignoring essentially every concern brought forward. Now, the agency is rounding the final corner of the federal permitting process for the 700-acre project expressly aimed at reducing the Bureau of Prison’s overpopulation problem. The agency’s facilities nationwide have been operating at 51 percent over capacity.

The 1,200 people moved to this new facility from other overpopulated prisons would end up hundreds of miles from most of their home communities with no mass transit options, making visitation an extreme hardship for their families. It’s this reality that’s earned central Appalachia, simultaneous home to the nation’s most biodiverse ecosystem and poorest rural economy, the title of America’s own Gulag Archipelago.


On July 31, the agency announced — via US Representative Hal Rogers’ office — its preferred site for the prison and the release of its Final Environmental Impact Statement. (Sadly, a majority of this document’s 800+ pages are taken up by letters from the local economically depressed post-coal community begging for prison jobs.) There is now a very short window of time left for public comments on the project. On August 31 the Bureau of Prisons will be closing the record on public input and making a final decision on the plan.

In the Final EIS response to environmental justice concerns raised, the Bureau of Prisons stated that it “does not concur with the assertion that federal inmates of mixed backgrounds (as to ethnicity, race, and income) to be housed in the proposed facility constitute either a minority or low income population for the purposes of EO12898, the President’s 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice. Nor that adverse health effects could result from living on top of a former mine site. The agency, however, provided no data on demographics, which is readily available from reputable sources such as the Prison Policy Initiative, nor on documented long term health concerns related to mountaintop removal mining sites.

The Prison Ecology Project is also opposed to the project on conservation grounds. As it outlined in a letter to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioner, which was also signed by the Center for Biological Diversity:

This project could adversely impact 71 species known to live in Letcher County and recognized as threatened, endangered, or of special concern in Kentucky. This includes the Kentucky red-backed vole, sharp-shinned hawk, American black bear, eastern red damsel, mountain midget crayfish, and Cumberland arrow darter, as well as the federally endangered Indiana and Grey bats, both highly imperiled species protected under the US Endangered Species Act. Protecting these species is integral to protecting the region’s rich natural heritage for future generations.

We can stop this prison plan, protect Appalachian biodiversity, promote a just transition for the people of Appalachia who are reeling from coal company exploitation, and turn the tide on mass incarceration. But it will take your help.

Three ways you can take action:

  1. Sign and share this petition to build momentum against the proposed prison, and show the Bureau of Prisons that opposition is growing across the country. HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project will submit this with our official comment on the Final EIS, Aug 31. Our goal is to reach 2,000 signatures. This link can be used to send a letter directly to the Bureaus of Prison’s team that is reviewing public comments. They are required by law to acknowledge and address them.
  2. Ask the EPA to keep it up! Reviewers from EPA Region 4 say they also found the Bureau of Prison’s environmental analysis for the project “insufficient.” We want them to keep fighting, and add environmental justice to their list of the EIS failures. Send an email to the EPA Region 4’s NEPA Program Office Chief, Heinz Mueller:
  3. Donate and Share the Prison Ecology Project’s crowdfunding campaign so we can take this fight all the way to a victory in the courtroom, if needed.


Rio’s Olympic preparations under the spotlight



In the run-up to the Rio Olympics people have been forced from their homes and killed in the streets, while the environment has been permanently damaged.

Photo: violent eviction of the Vila Autódromo communtiy (by Kátia Carvalho).

In August 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the 31st summer Olympic Games. Preparations have been underway for the past six years. With one year to go, it is time to look at how these preparations are shaping up compared to recent mega-events, which, as a rule, often serve to ensure the continued dominance of neoliberal capitalism.

Evictions in the ‘State of Exception’

The Olympics create a state of exception, similar to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism, which capitalists are able to exploit. For the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a state of exception refers to a “threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism” wherein the conventional process of governance is temporarily circumvented. Importantly, a state of exception can only be declared by the state. As Carl Schmitt put it back in the 1920s: “the exception reveals most clearly the essence of the state’s sovereignty.”

The imminent arrival of the Olympic circus provides a justification for governments to enforce new undemocratic laws and disregard planning legislation. In this state of exception, developers and civic elites systematically mislead governments to their own ends. Essentially, the Olympic Games are not about sport; they are about real estate development. While the overriding goals of the Olympic movement are presented as peace through games, the Olympics ultimately serve the real estate and construction sector in bid cities and constitute a healthy, untaxed profit for the IOC.

At previous mega-events, the state of exception has manifested itself in various ways. At the Brazilian World Cup in 2014, the so-called “Budweiser law” reversed government legislation banning the sale of alcohol in stadiums at the behest of the event sponsor. Perhaps more worryingly, the state of exception also frequently erodes civil liberties.

In Australia, for example, the powers available to police to detain people in Australian sporting arenas was greatly enhanced in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, and these powers continued to be used after the event. The state of exception in Rio has been used to justify not only the pacification of favelas, but also the wholesale removal of entire communities.

Vila Autódromo has been targeted for removal (and the community has resisted) for over twenty years. Now, with the state of exception induced by the impending mega-event, the removal of Vila Autódromo is being pursued ferociously by the city, given its location next to the Olympic Park.

In recent years, the city has attempted to avoid negative headlines by offering increasing amounts of compensation to residents, resulting in the first ever market-value compensation for favela housing. However, this is still executed in an underhand way, with residents approached individually, unable to know whether they’re being offered more or less than their neighbors. Many residents did not want to leave but felt they had no choice. Nevertheless, the sums of money provided in compensation mark a major achievement for activists in the face of the Olympic machine.

Many residents took these offers and left the community, but a determined few remained. As the opening ceremony draws nearer, however, the authorities seem to have changed their approach to a much more repressive policy of forced evictions. Dubbed “lightning evictions”, this is not confined to Vila Autódromo: forced evictions have also taken place in Morro da Providência, Favela do Metrô, and Santa Marta.

It appears that no warning was given to residents, who were in some cases unable to save some of their belongings, with the military police and municipal guard overseeing evictions. Where resistance was encountered, as in Vila Autódromo, the municipal guard responded with rubber bullets, pepper spray and police batons.

A judicial intervention suspended the evictions in the community and various activists from existing movements and organizations have bolstered the numbers resisting the evictions. Their struggle goes on, but based on evidence from previous Olympic cities, unfortunately, it will likely be in vain.

Repressive pacification of favelas

The Olympics are now characterized by repressive policing strategies and the removal of undesirable populations within the state of exception. Michel Foucault describes surveillance using the metaphor of the panopticon: a prison where each prisoner may be being watched at any time, but they do not know if they are being observed at any given moment.

This individualized surveillance forces people to self-regulate their behavior and can be seen clearly at Olympic events with huge investments in CCTV and in stadia designed so each individual spectator can be easily identified. For many years, particularly since 9/11, the threat of a terrorist attack on the Games has been used to justify spiraling security budgets.

At the first summer Games since the attacks, Athens 2004, the Greek government was pressured by NATO — and particularly by the US government — into spending US$1.5 billion on security. These inflated budgets allow the security industry to invest in the most advanced hardware available, which remains post-Games. The latest developments in security equipment, including military grade technologies, are then used to intimidate activists seeking to make political statements about the Games.

Undoubtedly, some of the security equipment used to quell protests in Athens recently is part of their Olympic legacy. The questions of social control raised by activists are routinely marginalized, with security fears cited incessantly.

Rio’s favelas have for a long time been strongly associated with drug gangs and criminal activity. To have such (perceived) hotbeds of criminality — areas where the safety of spectators could not be assured — so close to the Olympics and World Cup was considered untenable. Hence, the pacification program was launched, a collaboration between federal, state and city government, with the “laudable aim” of permanently removing criminal gangs from Rio’s periphery.

In essence, pacification entails the occupation of favela communities by BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais – Police Special Operations Battalion) followed by the establishment of a UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – Police Pacifying Unit). These units then police the communities, with UPP Social, recently re-branded as Rio+Social due to its woeful reputation, providing services to these communities.

The Brazilian police responsible for administering this program have a well-deserved reputation for brutality dating from the years of military rule (1964-1985). The mentality of the police lumps favela dwellers with the drugs gangs targeted by the UPPs, tarnishing all as the “enemy within”. This is borne out by the statistics: in Rio de Janeiro alone, the state police were responsible for 362 killings in the first half of 2013. Favela’s undergoing pacification are essentially urban warzones, yet families continue to live in these communities through this process, with children as young as ten killed by police.

Investment has not always followed the UPP, and where it has, services have been provided by the market as opposed to state provision, meaning residents are often unable to afford to continue living in the favela. The state is absent from favelas and with the market barely regulated, residents are priced out and forced to leave, with nowhere else for them to go.

As such, the pacification program aims to incorporate land into the city and improve its value, leaving the population excluded and homeless. Therefore, pacification can be seen as part of a deliberate policy of gentrification, removing the poor from Rio de Janeiro and seizing their homes for profit. Similar processes of gentrification have occurred, albeit less violently, in almost all recent Olympic host cities.

Serious about sustainability?

In 1999 the IOC adopted environmental sustainability as the third pillar of the Olympic movement. Alongside this, claims are frequently made about the ability of sport to contribute to social development. These claims serve to ensure the support for the Olympic venture within the host cities, despite warnings about the nature of delivery affecting outcomes.

The potential benefits of sport, while genuine, should be approached critically, as social benefits are dependent on a plethora of factors and should not be taken for granted. It is a regular occurrence that marginalized populations are pushed further towards the periphery of society by Olympic events, as seen, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, in the pacification policy and evictions in Vila Autódromo.

Yet the evidence from previous games seems to suggest organizers of mega-events simply pay lip service to environmental and social issues, dropping their apparent principles the moment they become costly and inconvenient. This contributes to the feel-good, mythical rhetoric of ‘Olympic values’ and allows sponsors to enhance their social and environmental credentials.

No Olympic games has ever been, or will ever be, genuinely positive for the environment. The massive construction projects and the flying of athletes, media and spectators around the globe, among other issues, serve to ensure this. The question for Olympic organizers is never “how can we be good to the environment?”, but is rather “how much environmental damage can we avoid?”. This question then becomes interpreted as how much damage a host city can afford to avoid. This invariably results in commitments made for the environment being dropped when deadlines loom large and budgets spiral out of control.

In Rio de Janeiro, the organizing committee promised to clean up Guanabara Bay, where sailing events are planned to take place during the games. However, the state of the bay has regularly made international headlines due to the disgusting nature of the water, which has been described by sailors as an open sewer. The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro admitted in 2014 that the environmental commitments made during the bidding process would not be reached.

Not only are the promises to make improvements dropped at the first sign of a bill, the Olympics also actively damage the environment. For example, the natural wetlands of Eagleridge Bluffs on the outskirts of Vancouver were destroyed to make way for a new highway to Whistler, where the mountain events would take place.

Environmental destruction in preparation for the Olympics has been increased by the return of golf to the Olympic games for the first time since 1904. The construction of golf courses is intensely environmentally damaging, due to deforestation, large-scale use of chemicals, the destruction of natural habitats and large-scale water usage.

This is particular pertinent in Rio de Janeiro, as Brazil faced its most severe drought for decades in early 2015. While the problems were most keenly felt in São Paulo, steps were taken in Rio to cut down on water usage, but the irrigation of the golf course continued, suggesting that plush greens are prioritized over hydrated citizens.

A different role for the mass media

The role of the mass media is crucial for celebrating capitalism in disseminating the imagery of the spectacle across the nation and wider world. The Olympic Games, according to the IOC, are watched by over 4 billion people, making it one of the world’s largest media events. This global reach provides a platform for the spreading of neoliberal capitalist doctrine, through the spectacular imagery of the Games.

The mass media organizations often act as overt or covert promoters of the bid, providing value in kind donations and censoring critical journalism. Even when journalism critical of mega-events is published, it is then condemned.

In the context of the recent shift to hosting mega-events outside the first world, particularly in the BRICS nations, the Western media has tended to become more critical of event preparations. The majority of criticisms in the lead-up to these events comes from external, Western sources. It has been suggested that this is due to reluctance from Western audiences to cede power and credibility to emerging nations.

A similar trend was observed in media coverage of the 1996 Cricket World Cup in South Asia, suggesting government attempts to present positive images of nations are hampered by existing stereotypes and criticisms. As such, critical journalism will be more likely at the Rio Olympics than at similar events in the Global North, although this coverage will not necessarily criticize the Olympics directly, instead focusing on organizational inefficiencies or poverty in an attempt to maintain the cultural dominance of the West.

The Rio Olympic games will undoubtedly be a spectacular festival of sport. But the production of this spectacle has transformed Rio de Janeiro, turning it into an even more divided city with expanded zones of exclusion in which the poor are no longer welcome. Residents have been physically and economically forced from their homes, they have seen their friends killed in the streets, and their environment has been permanently damaged. In response, residents have protested — and will continue to protest — even though they have had only small and symbolic victories so far.

As the Olympic machine rumbles on, the concerns of Rio’s residents will likely be drowned out by the cheers.