Keeping the Lights On

Incarcerating the Bluegrass State

Kentucky’s prisons are full and counties across the state are building jails, with devastating consequences. If incarceration rates were to continue to rise in Kentucky as they have since 2000, every person in the state would be behind bars in 113 years. Despite the disturbing implications of this growth rate, federal and county-level policymakers continue to promote incarceration as economic development, more deeply aligning county and state officials with ever-increasing incarceration.

In economically depressed and environmentally devastated eastern Kentucky, this phenomenon is thrown into sharp relief. In Letcher County, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is working with local leaders to build a new, half-billion-dollar federal prison, which if completed will become the fifth built in the Central Appalachian region since 1992; the result of a congressional appropriations strategy that relies on incarceration as an answer to a deepening crisis.

For decades in eastern Kentucky, coal kept the lights on, as the popular industry strapline boasts. Through the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, mining jobs decreased as a result of automation and mountaintop removal—an extreme method of strip mining that removes the tops of mountains to get at the coal deposits, then dumps what the industry calls “overburden” into surrounding valleys.

Despite new extraction techniques that caused jobs to wither, coal production levels either increased or remained steady until 1990, when production started to decline. Beginning in 2011, increases in domestic production of natural gas caused the relative cost of coal to rise and production in the region to plummet. Eastern Kentucky lost 73 percent of its coal jobs between 2011 and 2018; in Harlan County, median household income fell from $26,914 in 2011 to $20,595 in 2017. (In 2017, Kentucky’s median household income was $48,375, compared to $60,336 nationwide.)

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As one jail administrator said, the reality in the Kentucky coalfields today is that “state prisoners keep the lights on,” at least when it comes to county jails. The money that the state pays out for locking up state prisoners in local jails has supplanted the role of coal as a revenue source for county budgets.

Kentucky’s Coal Severance Tax requires that 4.5 percent of revenues from coal mined in each county be paid to the state, which is then distributed to the county governments in coal producing counties. However, less coal production has meant shrinking severance payments. In Harlan County, for example, coal severance payments dropped from $3.2 million in 2011 to $850,000 in 2016.

At the same time that coal revenues dried up, the state’s criminal justice policies subsidized and incentivized the expansion of carceral capacity at the county level. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of people held in local jails in Kentucky under state jurisdiction increased 39 percent. During this same period, the number of people held for the counties continued to increase. Asked why there were so many people in the county jails, an eastern Kentucky public defender said, “My impression would be that most of them are there, not yet convicted of anything, or picked up for failure to appear, that sort of thing.”

Referring to the high incarceration rates across the state, he explained, “Those county jails that are approved to hold state prisoners would be skewed [higher] because they make a lot of money by holding state prisoners…. They get so much per day and it allows them to break even. A jail that doesn’t have them is usually a money sink for a county. No county should want a jail that doesn’t hold state prisoners. But they’re pretty bad places to hold state prisoners, even the jails that are qualified. I always tell my people: I would rather be in the worst of the prisons than the best of the jails.”

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Eastern Kentucky

Since 1992, the Kentucky Department of Corrections (DOC) has boarded a significant percentage of the state prison population in county jails. As of early February 2019, Kentucky had 23,429 people under state prison jurisdiction but only 11,700 state prison beds. Nearly half of the people sentenced to state prison wind up in county jail custody, with the state paying the counties on a per-diem basis to hold them. In 2016, the average daily cost of incarcerating someone in a state facility was $66.82. In contrast, the state paid county jails $31.34 a day for a person’s housing and medical costs. This means that, for almost half of the people it puts behind bars, the state pays less than 50 percent of what it would spend if they were held in state prisons. As a result, state legislators charged with appropriating taxpayer dollars and shaping criminal justice policy may have a hard time seeing the true economic and human costs of mass incarceration.

If, however, the state prison population were to fall drastically, or if the state further increased its prison capacity, rural counties that built outsize jails would be left to pay the bills for empty beds and unneeded buildings. For counties in eastern Kentucky with significantly reduced tax revenue from coal production, and in other parts of the state that are struggling to remain solvent, the jail boom is happening during a period of declining household income. Fewer people in local jails for the state DOC could spell economic catastrophe.

Perry and Knott counties share the Kentucky River Regional Jail, splitting the costs 75/25. Built in 2001 behind a Walmart in Hazard, the county seat of Perry, the jail is a 135-bed facility. Yet in the fall of 2018, there were 240 people incarcerated there, according to Lonnie Brewer, the jail administrator, who grew up in Perry County. A third of these 240 people were being held for the state DOC. The jail holds state prisoners for up to five years. While the jail charges Perry and Knott counties $26 per day for each person they consign to the jail, it charges the state $35 a day for people it boards there.

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Brewer outlined the factors that land so many people in the regional jail. “Mental health is a part of it,” he said. “There are people here for whom there is no reason they should be in the jail. Sometimes we’re the mental health providers.” He also pointed to the loss of coal mining jobs in the area. “There are more child support people in here,” he said. “I’ve seen a hundred dollars hold a guy in here for a month. It goes back to the mines not working.”

One evening last fall, a retired judge offered his view of the region’s exponentially expanding jail population as we dined at a small Hazard bar. “People in eastern Kentucky used to handle their own problems,” he said, “and then they started in the 1970s to deal with every problem by passing a new law. And the jails filled up.” He’d spent most of his career in rural eastern Kentucky, where counties are isolated from one another by mountainous terrain and poor infrastructure. Asked about Harlan County’s especially high incarceration rate, the judge said, “Harlan is another world. It’s a glorified coal camp.”

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Harlan County, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Norton

Between 1978 and 2014, the incarceration rate in Harlan County increased 1,500 percent, from seven per 10,000 people between the ages of 15 and 64 in 1978 to 112 per 10,000 people in 2014. In 1978, there were about 19 people in Harlan County’s jail on any given day. In 2014, the average number was 209. In October 2018, there were 235 people in the Harlan County Detention Center, which was designed to hold 227.

B.J. Burkhart, the county jailer, is a tall, soft-spoken man. An assistant coach for the Harlan County High School football team, Burkhart also coached the 2016 middle school state football champions, the New Harlan Patriots. He started working in the Harlan County Jail in 2002 and has been the county’s elected jailer since 2015. In 2007, Harlan County built its new jail in Evarts, near the coal-mining community of Brookside, the subject of Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA about the Brookside miners’ strike.

Burkhart confirmed that much of the incredible rise in Harlan County’s jail population, as in many rural Kentucky counties, comes from the increasing flow of state-sentenced DOC prisoners. He admitted that the county built big to help cover costs. “If you’re going to build [a jail], you might as well build it to make a little revenue.” He said that the Harlan jail yearly budget is around $2.8 million, and that the county brings in anywhere from $1.8 to $1.9 million from the state for holding DOC prisoners. Guards’ wages start at $8.50 an hour. The county jail is often overcrowded, said Burkhart, “between 235 and 255,” and its administrators try to keep around 160 state prisoners there at all times.

The population of Harlan County was about 26,700 and falling in 2017. Harlan historically has been one of the region’s top coal-producing counties. Its history, like many eastern Kentucky counties, is one of labor struggles and intensive—often environmentally reckless—coal extraction, with devastating results for the land and the people who live there.

Mary Hammons, a retired elementary school teacher, has been the jailer of Knox County, west of Harlan, since 2010. She was elected after her husband, the previous jailer, died. Standing outside the Knox County jail in the center of Barbourville, she spoke of the impact of reduced coal severance tax revenue on her county and its jail. “We lost money,” she said. “It affected the budget. You can imagine what it does to the schools.” She added, “Whatever we’re doing [with the jail] has to be done.”

Hammons’s resolve centers on Knox County’s latest building project: a 350-bed jail across the road from the new hospital. The existing jail has a capacity of 36 but regularly holds more than 100 people. Hammons said that the county was building such a large jail to deal with jail overcrowding, which is widespread across the state, but also to house prisoners for the state to offset costs.

Hammons stressed that the new jail, which is planned to open next year, will incarcerate people consigned to imprisonment by the county or the state, but not those who come out of the federal court system. Housing federal prisoners, she explained, requires a costlier set of building specifications.

During remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new jail last year, J.M. Hall, the county’s judge/executive, echoed Hammons’s formula for revenue generation through more incarceration. “If we only keep 100 state inmates at $34 a day,” he said, “we’ll make our bond payments. We’ll get state inmates, there’s plenty of them. Judge Lay here [turning to Gregory A. Lay of the 27th Judicial Circuit Court, standing next to him]—you’ll fill it for us, won’t you?”

At least one eastern Kentucky county sees the prospect of federal revenue as an enticement to build bigger and more secure jails, however. Laurel County, to the north of Knox and just off I-75, is currently constructing a 1,000-bed jail with the intention of renting beds to the state, as well as to two federal agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Knox County Jail under construction.

Letcher County, east of Harlan, which has a population of 24,500, isn’t planning to build more jail space. Letcher—where the incarceration rate was 879 per 100,000 last year, up 825 percent from 1978—has a small jail in the basement of its courthouse and has no plans to build a larger one anytime soon. “We’re still paying on this one,” said Don McCall, Letcher County’s jailer. The jail holds some prisoners for the state, but not nearly as many as those in surrounding counties where the jails have been expanded expressly for that purpose.

“I would say some of the bigger jails, even, are scratching and fighting to get as many state inmates as they can,” McCall said, “but we’ve got such a small jail that’s never been the issue for us.” Like many of the people running jails in eastern Kentucky, McCall thinks that high rates of local incarceration are a reflection of rural drug use. “It’s the drug problem,” he said. “I mean, every crime directly or indirectly, is related to drug addiction, in my opinion…. That's why our numbers are what they are.”

In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that it would move ahead with plans to build a $500 million federal prison in Letcher County on the top of a mountain that mountaintop removal had flattened. The project, supported by local elected officials and business owners, is meant to bring jobs into the county.

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Hazard, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Norton

Mitch Whitaker lives in Roxana in Letcher County on land that abuts the site for the newest facility in the regional carceral archipelago. Like many people in the county, Whitaker does not see the proposed prison as a positive development. Early plans for the prison included a small portion of Whitaker’s land, which he refused to sell. Sitting in the Whitesburg public library, Whitaker recounted that his neighbors and county leaders had approached him to get on board with the project. “I said, look, you come up with something besides a prison, and I'll probably donate you some property…. I just think we could do better for our economic development.”

Something better, in Whitaker’s view, could be anything from a solar panel factory, to a college, to letting people continue to hunt on and enjoy the land. He described the answer he got when he asked a local leader why a prison was an effective method for reviving the rural county’s economy: “It sounded to me like the more he talked, that [the prison] was what we were fed, instead of us telling Washington that we need water… or sewer, you know, economic development…. We need that. That’s what we need.”

While Congress feeds prisons to residents of struggling rural areas as a tonic for economic development, the results are mixed at best. In fact, the three counties in the region where the BOP built prisons since 1992 remain among the nation’s poorest.

Letcher County’s tax severance revenues, which were nearly $2 million in 2011, dropped to $637,000 in 2016, leading to a $1.3 million county budget deficit. According to Jim Ward, Letcher’s judge/executive and a member of the planning commission, the county couldn’t fund essential services despite having stopped “funding for five senior citizens centers [and] reducing contributions to fire departments, the ambulance service and sheriff’s department and cutting about 90 jobs.”

Still, the county has been able to leverage the promised prison to secure outside funding to extend water lines to the prison site and, in the process, to 200 additional county residents. The money has come from federal grants for the rehabilitation of abandoned mine lands as well as regional economic development funds.

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Perry County, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Norton

For many Kentucky residents, the growing dependence on incarceration as a way for local governments to scrape by is a reminder that the state lacks a real plan to improve people’s quality of life.

Anna, a nursing student at Kentucky’s Berea College, spoke to us about the many prisons that have been built in the coalfields over the past 27 years. Anna compared incarceration’s effects on the region’s social fabric to the effects of coal mining on the Appalachian ecosystem:

“Do you know what ‘overburden’ is?” Anna asked. “It’s all the stuff that’s on top of the coal. It’s important stuff like rocks and topsoil and trees, and a vibrant, beautiful ecosystem that’s the most complex in North America. But to the coal companies, they just need to get it out of the way and dump it in a slag heap so that they can get down to the coal, which is what they care about. And I think that, with coal shut down, we’re starting to get the human overburden from the rest of the country. They weren’t slag before they were dynamited and broken apart from their ecosystem and their community and shipped down here. But you know, it loses its value and dies when that’s done.”