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The Coalfield-to-Prison Pipeline and a Green New Deal

Instructor: Billy Fleming

Students: Claire Ahn, Daniel Flinchbaugh, Hannah Bonestroo, and Huiyi An

Extractive industries are so entrenched in Appalachia that the region has been referred to alternatively as an internal colony, an internal periphery of the world capitalist system, and as a “national sacrifice zone.” As a concept, colonialism, in this sense, speaks to the broader set of relations in which a wealthy, settler nation extracts raw resources via exploitative labor practices from an external site for its own domestic consumption. In the case of Appalachia, the region’s abundant natural resources—first its land, then its timber and coal, and now its natural gas and leveled mountains—fueled the growth of the rest of the region, country, and world while leaving itself depleted. Speculators representing northern capitalist interests were able to acquire massive acreage and mineral rights through generous land grants provided by the state and other dubious methods. Generations of absentee landowners and financiers extracted immense sums of resources and money out of the region, leaving nothing behind but wages. Today, ownership of the land and its resources still remains the basis of wealth and power in the region. A 1982 foundational study of land ownership in Appalachia found that of the 4.8 million acres of corporately owned mineral acres in the surveyed region, 89 percent were absentee owned with 62 percent by out-of-state corporations. These imbalances of wealth and power, created generations ago, have left Appalachia impoverished and environmentally degraded. After over a century of extractive activity, Appalachia has become a place with “rich land and poor people.”






“In Eastern Kentucky, the symbolism of new prisons built on top of former coal mines is clear. These facilities infuse local imaginaries with the promise of being the next great form of economic development. Perched atop mountains artificially flattened by industrial dynamite, penitentiaries fill both literal spatial cavities and the economic and affective voids left by coal and the extractive process known as mountaintop removal.”

- Brett Story, Prisonland

Photo 1 :Bell County Coal, a decommissioned coal refinery in Kentucky.

Source: Daniel Flinchbaugh

Photo 2: A mountaintop removal site near Whitesburg in Letcher County, Kentucky.

Source: The Mountaintop Removal Road Show (Dave Cooper)

While the demand for coal has ebbed and flowed over time, little has ever been done in the way of introducing sustainable development to Appalachia to capture true economic growth. Appalachia has been failed not only by coal companies but also by the state. Brett Story describes this state failure as “organized abandonment.” After over a century of extractive activity, despite an incredible wealth of resources, the region remains one of the poorest regions in the country with rising poverty rates, opioid addiction, and falling quality of life. To many of the former mining towns, any industry bringing jobs is a good industry so many communities have welcomed prisons. Thus, one extractive industry, mining, is readily replaced by another despite what any statistics show. As activist Angela Davis describes, “The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.” The placement of prisons on the flattened mountains of Appalachia is, therefore, highly symbolic of how the region has been treated as a sacrifice zone, a dumping spot for the “detritus capitalism” for generations.

The contents of the Field Guide, How-To Manual, and work of Climate Fiction sampled here deconstruct the complex dynamics of Appalachia, as well as explore possible solutions and alternative futures. 





With climate change bearing down on us, the moment we are currently living in has great potential to be a “time of rupture.” However, this will depend first upon being able to expand our imaginations beyond the status quo. People are born into a world where the rules of social life and institutions around them seem natural and immutable. Without being able to perceive beyond this limited vision, it is likely to remain so. The coalfield to prison pipeline is extremely complex and multi-faceted and will require more than just a little creativity to overcome. This climate fiction hopes to inspire and expand your thinking beyond business as usual and “unleash your imagination.” Creating a more just and sustainable world will first begin with imagining its possibility.

October 20, 2030
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