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Welcome to Appalachia’s Gulag Archipelago

By Skyler Simmons / Earth First! Newswire

Exile in the Mountains

It is hard to imagine the hollers and hills of southern Appalachia ever being a place of punishment. With its lush coves filled with ginseng, ramps, towering oaks, and tulip poplars. Its abundant springs, creeks and rivers teaming with trout, crawdads, and hellbenders. The thousands of family farms and backyard gardens providing sustenance, health, and independence. For most of us lucky enough to call this place home, it is pretty much paradise.

The residents of the gated community of Wallens Ridge, however, would beg to differ. Wallens Ridge is a supermax prison in the economically depressed coalfields of southwest Virginia. The facility, completed in 1999, was sold to this struggling community as an economic boon for a region where coal jobs were quickly disappearing.

Shortly after its opening, Wallens Ridge received a fresh shipment of bodies to fill up its cells, not to mention the state coffers. These bodies were 109 men from a private prison run by the security firm Wackenhut in New Mexico. Sick of the inhumane conditions, torture, and violence endemic in prisons, up to 290 prisoners rioted, destroying property, setting fires in four housing units and causing massive damage in August 1999. In the melee, one prison guard was killed.

The state’s response was swift. In the words of New Mexico Corrections Secretary Rob Perry, “The only thing you can do is act with an iron fist, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Another prison official commented, “A lot of people say they should be sent to a barge or an island, this is the closest thing we’ve got to it.”

It turns out that Wallens Ridge was the perfect island of exile that prison officials desired for these rebellious inmates. Shipped nearly 2,000 miles away from New Mexico, they were subject to another form of torture, isolation from family and friends who could not afford to travel across the county for visits. In addition, an overwhelmingly rural, white prison guard staff was sure to deal with the predominately black and brown prisoners ruthlessly. And that they did.

Upon arrival at Wallens Ridge, the New Mexico inmates were subject to vicious beatings and electroshocks with stun guns, all while the guards shouted racist slurs. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, inmate Hector Torres was repeatedly asked if he was, “one of the corrections officer-stabbing Mexicans.” Each time he said “No”, the guards shocked him with a stun gun. Remarking on the conditions at the prison, an attorney representing some of the New Mexico inmates in a civil right lawsuit said, “The knowing and deliberate nature of it is really startling… It was as close to a concentration camp or an experience of slavery as anyone would expect to come in this country.”

Wallens Ridge is not unique. An identical supermax prison called Red Onion was built in 1998 in Pound, VA on mine land donated by Pittston Coal Company about 20 miles away. Noted for having the highest rate of solitary confinement of any prison in Virginia, a 1999 Human Right Watch report found that at Red Onion, “racism, excessive violence and inhumane conditions reign inside.” Many inmates, such as New Afrikan Black Panther Party member Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, say they were sent to this supermax prison, not for their crimes on the outside, but as punishment for speaking out against abuse on the inside.

Even with the importing of out of state prisoners and a “tough on crime” attitude, a year after Wallens Ridge and Red Onion were built, the prisons sat only half full. So what did the Virginia legislature do? They created the aptly, if not draconian, named Virginia Exile Program which included mandatory 5 year sentences in a supermax prison for persons convicted of possession of a gun and cocaine, or any felon in possession of a gun. Sure enough, the prisons filled up. As a matter of fact it was so successful that the prisons are now horribly overcrowded.

My Old Kentucky Home

On November 15, 2013 activist Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. He was convicted for hacking into the computers of the private security company Stratfor. Jeremy’s actions unveiled thousands of documents detailing Stratfor’s secretive program to spy on anti-war, environmental, Occupy, and other protest groups. In the wake of Wikileaks, and several other high profile Anonymous hacks, the Justice Dept. was eager to make an example of activist hackers. Never mind the fact it was an FBI informant who provided Hammond with the information needed to break into Stratfor’s computers. Jeremy’s punishment wasn’t to end with the lengthy prison sentence. His 10 years would be served at FCI Manchester, in the coalfields of Kentucky, nearly 500 miles from his friends and family. Knowing that visits from friends and family are one of the few joys a prisoner can look forward to, the Bureau of Prisons has its ways to deny them this too. What’s more, this prison is surrounded by toxic waste.

“They say [FCI Manchester] was also a former coal strip mine site…and has two Superfund sites.” He continued, “I wish there was a way to get the water tested. The medical here is terrible—basically you got nothing coming unless it’s life-threatening,” said Jeremy in a letter to the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.

The issue of prisons located on toxic waste sites is so pervasive one begins to wonder if it is done on purpose. At the very least it is clear that the government could care less about the health of prisoners. At the Fayette State Correctional Institution in Labelle, PA, which is located next to a coal ash dump, prisoners are dying from cancer at astonishing rates, as well as suffering from skin rashes, respiratory illnesses, and abscesses. USP Marion, home to the notorious Communication Management Unit sits on the edge of thousands of acres of land contaminated by World War II era munitions production. In Charleston, WV prisoners were forced to drink and shower for weeks in water contaminated by a chemical used by the coal industry that spilled into the municipal water supply.

A New Kentucky Home?

Now the Bureau of Prisons is looking to add another facility to this list of toxic prisons. About 50 miles east of where Jeremy Hammond is locked up, and just over the mountain from Wallens Ridge and Red Onion state prisons, sits the Roxana site; a former mountaintop removal coal mine in Letcher County, KY. Driving in to the community of Roxana, one instantly feels the violence the coal industry has brought upon this land.

Run down trailers and dilapidated homes packed together on the isolated stretches of flat land mark the extreme poverty that plague most mining communities. A stream coming off of a mine site dyed bright orange by toxic runoff show’s no signs of life. Everything; plants, trees, homes, cars, is covered in the ubiquitous gray dust kicked up by the daily procession of coal trucks on the roads and blasting up on the mountains. A towering earthen dam, hundreds of feet high, holds back millions of gallons of toxic coal sludge in an unlined pond. A company sign warns that photographs are strictly forbidden.

Thanks to Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, nearly a half a billion dollars of taxpayer money has been allocated to import and incarcerate 700 primarily black and brown men on this toxic mine site. Again, the promise of jobs is dangled in front of this struggling community. If politicians like Hal Rogers have their way, Appalachia is destined to pivot from a dying economy that violently extracts and exports coal to one that violently extracts human beings from their communities and imports them in shackles by the busload to these former mine sites. If built, the Letcher County facility would be the 11th prison constructed in the Appalachian mountains straddling the Kentucky/Virginia border.

Turning the Tide Against Mass Incarceration

Not everyone is going along with the plan. Mitch Whitaker lives just below the Roxana prison site. According to him, the BOP wants to put an access road through his property against his will. Mitch’s land, with its tall oaks and maples, sits in stark contrast to the tangled mess of invasive autumn olives, brambles, and jack pines on the “reclaimed” mine site above his house.

The only thing that saved his land from being buried under the rubble of the strip mine a few decades ago were the two cemeteries next to his house. Now the BOP wants to take this little piece of paradise from him too. As Mitch said in an April 1st op-ed in the Lexington Herald, “This piece of property has already been imprisoned, and it’s just now getting back to the point of literal and figurative liberation. Why do it again?”

Mitch is not alone in his fight. A group of Letcher County residents recently launched#Our444Million, an initiative to stop the prison and engage Kentuckians on how the $444 million in taxpayer money could be better spent on their transition away from coal.

Meanwhile on the national level a coalition of 25+ groups will be converging on Washington DC next month to network, strategize and take direct action against the Letcher County prison. Billed as the Convergence to Fight Toxic Prisons and Support Eco-Prisoners. The gathering runs June 11-13 with a weekend of workshops and panels featuring former political prisoners and eco-defenders including Ramona Africa, Eric McDavid, Ray Luc Levasseur, Peg Millet, Jihad Abdulmumit and more. On the 13th, organizers say that hundreds will hit the streets and take direct action at the BOP’s headquarters to stop the Letcher County prison and highlight the plight of the thousands of prisoners trapped inside toxic prisons.

In the words of organizer Panagioti Tsolkas, “Stopping one prison is not a magic bullet to ending the prison industrial complex. But it’s a pretty good place to build from. In particular, it is a powerful place that the environmental movement can express solidarity with the growing rage over the racist criminal justice system.”

Originally published in Earth First! Newswire on June 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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