The New York Times recently took an in-depth look at one of the country’s poorest regions, Appalachia, specifically McDowell County, in the piece “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” McDowell County, a rural area in southern West Virginia, is home to a shrinking population of poor, mostly white, residents who rely heavily on government assistance programs for survival. The best jobs that used to be available here, coal mining, have all but disappeared—reflected in the poverty rate. But the county did attempt to find salvation:
Today, fewer than one in three McDowell County residents are in the labor force. The chief effort to diversify the economy has been building prisons. The most impressive structure on Route 52, the twisting highway into Welch, is a state prison that occupies a former hospital. There is also a new federal prison on a mountaintop.
Yes, prison, that tried and true engine of economic progress.
This isn’t specific to McDowell County or West Virginia. Prison economies are prevalent across the country, especially in rural areas that have space for massive buildings. It’s called the “prison-industrial complex” not just because of the low-wage work that’s extracted from prisoners but also because of the industry that springs up around the prison system. First, someone will be contracted to build the prison. Then you’ll need a staff for maintenance. Next comes the restaurants and hotels in the nearby town that feed and house relatives coming to visit the incarcerated in these far off places. When you’re finished, you have an entire local economy dependent on the existence of a prison. If you can’t continue to stuff those prisons full of bodies, the people in these rural communities who have to rely on these jobs for survival will suffer.
Unfortunately for residents of McDowell County, many don’t even qualify for jobs at the prison, as they can’t pass a drug test. They are ravaged by poverty and all that accompanies it, including rampant drug use (which this piece treats as cause of poverty rather than a result). They’re more likely to be incarcerated than employed by their local prison.
Coal mining will never come roaring back as generator of living wage jobs—and good riddance. It’s detrimental to the health of people and the environment. But so is basing your economy around prison. Yet that’s what has been made available to some of our poorest citizens. There’s an intimate relationship between poverty and the carceral state. Our addiction to incarceration doesn’t only make certain poverty’s continuance, but it gives hope to some that their poverty will be alleviated. It’s a sick cycle that’s only fixed by building a more equitable society.