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Abolitionize: Review Brevis of Judah Schept's Coal, Cages, Crisis

Judah Schept, Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in central Appalachia. New York, New York University Press, 2022.

The word abolition is one that focuses on the past. It is a word that remains tethered to the Christian movement which toppled the slave trade (1807) and then the abolition of the “peculiar institution” slavery in the U.S. (1865). A compound Latin word, it literally means to grow out of. That is an apt description of how white America might frame our own privilege and racism. We are daily called to grow out of it, abolish it, by acknowledging the history that remains as a sedimentation in our contemporary culture. Thus we stop, that is, we abolish our tendency to promulgate and piously defend our good character in order to listen to the stories people tell about their experiences in white spaces. Another way abolition is understood is in terms of the absolute destruction of something. When thinking historically we tend to believe that in the abolition of slavery, the absolute destruction of white racism was accomplished. But as the history of the twentieth century well attests, that is almost the opposite of what has happened. Abolition needs to continue because the U.S. prison system replaced slavery as an institution of brutality and control. The criminal justice system needs to be abolitionized, and this insightful book by Judah Schept is a critical analysis demonstrating why that is so.

Reading Judah Schept’s incisive commentary about what he calls racialized capitalism in central Appalachia confirmed once again that the patterns of the contemporary U.S. economy inherently carry on this countries’ legacy of violence and oppression. This inheritance is what uncreative minds and habituated hearts propel, especially if they are rich, detached and comfortable. Schept tells the story of Brushy Mountain State penitentiary in Tennessee, a prison deliberately built on the coal fields of Morgan county so that “prisoners would mine coal directly for the state of Tennessee.”(96) This was in 1896. This free labor system continued up until 1966. When prisoners refused to work, violence and brutality was the result. Prisoners began to write letters documenting the violence, others went on strike by overtaking the guards in the mine, refusing to come out when their shift in the mine was over. (99) The fact that this prison was built as a way to continue the southern convict lease system, and to insure millions of dollars in state revenue, is a story that is not often told in history class, I am sure.

Schept tells the rest of the story of Brushy Mountain by describing the market corporatism which led to Brushy Mountain becoming a tourist destination and distillery. Of course, to re-write the history as sell-worthy the developers marketed the history of the prison with the mystique of “true crime” tones. In this rendering, the worst of the worst came to the prison, and the guards had to use violence. Part of the tour of the prison involves a look at all the torture tools the guards used. There are slogans which give the story a doltish Christian sentiment about evil people and the few who did their time with the aim of redemption. Then there is the distillery and the eyewitness accounts that Brushy Mountain pen is haunted. Spirits and other spirits. Schept is able to demonstrate that righteous violence sells tickets to a version of history that is just false. That is what consumer capitalism has tended to do. The economic system has to deny the actual traumas of history, the extraction of nature and people, to continue to extract for the benefit the wealthy few.

In various ways Schept’s rigorous research tells the thick story of central Appalachia. He tells it very well and it seems driven by an irony he laments in different chapters. This is the irony that this nation’s most verdant, resource rich, elegant and beautiful land is largely populated by persons who live in poverty. How is that? By any other measure the property you have gives you economic power. But from the time France, Spain and England were vying for the tribal allegiances of native cultures in order to sell the most fox pelts to European investors, this wondrous region has been seen as a commodity. Appalachia is where global capitalism started. Extraction is consumerism’s calling card. Extracting resources, people; it all adds up to nothing for the people who call the Appalachian hills home.

Schept also deconstructs the tiresome and uncreative narratives that respected journalists and pundits tell to maintain such reductionisms. It amounts to another stereo-type, that of “white trash.” The people of this region, according to normative accounts, display an “inherited inferiority.” Schept cites Kentucky author Harry Caudill as one who, in the sixties and seventies, portrayed Appalachian culture as lacking; essentially outcasts “outside prison walls.” (68) More than once, Schept takes J.D. Vance to task for perpetuating this simplistic narrative about Appalachia. My dear mother-in-law, Jane Hall, is from Clendenin, W.Va. Someone gave her a copy of Vance’s book when it came out. Jane was unimpressed with Vance’s book, and claimed he was not doing justice to “hillbillies,” though Jane may never call herself by that moniker. Schept’s point is that Vance only perpetuates a narrow and uncreative proposal for Appalachia which rehearses tired complaints about individualistic chronic poverty and drug abuse without a broader social analysis that accounts for the extraction economy, what Schept calls the caceral economy. (Carceral economy: an economic system that sees prisons as lucrative for the county or state they are built in).

The book has three parts and the first is an examination of the way extraction of coal and the disposal of waste became a pattern in Appalachia through mountain top removal (MTR). Mountain top removal is a strategy of extraction that, in 2005, utilized four million pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil to bomb the top of mountains to expose the coal.(41) This violence against the land, of course, abolishes the eco-system and poisons the streams. Once extraction was completed in Martin County KY, the coal company “donated” the site to the Bureau of Prisons. “The federal government then paid 40 million to remediate the site…”(42) Schept clearly connects the way the economy of coal extraction is connected to the building of prisons. Coal waste and “white trash;” the building of federal prisons in central Appalachia and the extraction of urban poor criminals sent to populate these buildings. Schept points out that built environments are premised upon narratives of violence to nature and the control of people. In Erie, where I live, the railroad parallels 14th -16th streets as it moves from east to west. The tracks separate neighborhoods and maintain a boundary on the neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1940s. Along the railroad tracks, of course, are industrial sites, some brownfields but many active refuse and recycling companies, with acres and acres of dumps and piles of rubble sitting idle just blocks from churches and schools. Cut by the tracks, other neighborhoods are segmented by the bay-front connector highway, which severely diminishes mobility for neighbors to walk to the store, the butcher or downtown. And, a clear demonstration of Schept’s analysis of the carceral geography, the county prison sits just south of the RR tracks and is surrounded by the refuse and recycling companies as well as brownfields.

In the last part of the book Schept does tell the story of how a broad based coalition defeated the building of another prison in Letcher county KY. In previous chapters also, Schept describes alternative uses for MTR sites. They can provide concert venues, bird parks and airports. In my book, Mediations between Nature and Culture, I describe the possibility that MTR sites become sheep farms.(78-80) All these alternatives demand creative and constructive thought which moves outside the orbit of economic reason in a technological and carceral culture. We can grow out of that kind of reason, in the softer sense of abolition, but we can also demand creative alternatives which can leave behind, or at least delete, the habitual tendency to presume that extraction, consumption and human indignity are inevitabilities of a strong economy.

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