From the Coal Mine to the Prison Yard: The Human Costs of Appalachia's Incarceral Economies

Central Appalachia is now one of the four most concentrated areas of prison growth in the country. This paper builds on our previous work to map the growth of prisons in the region, conditions within those prisons, and local activism to combat the prison industrial complex. Often billed as one of the region’s only growth industries, we examine the implications of economic boosters offering prisons as one of the only solutions for communities to address long stagnant economies, even when research suggests that prisons do not expand local economies and may actually further depress them.

Our paper speaks to how the nation’s mass incarceration of its citizens has specifically impacted Appalachia, and it explores Appalachia’s unique position within this transformation, given its history of exploitation that some scholars theorize as internal colonization. Racial implications are explored as well in order to better understand what it means for urban centers outside of the region to send prisoners, who are disproportionately poor people of color, to low-income majority-white communities in Appalachia. To that end, our theoretical frameworks include critical race theories such as legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of the matrix of domination, and Angela Davis’s frameworks of prison abolitionism. Our work is also situated within the broader context of Appalachians’ historical and contemporary work to preserve the dignity and livelihoods of their communities while seeking to live meaningful lives free from control, economic and otherwise, of outside entities.