May 20, 2012
With one road running through Benham, it should have been hard to take a wrong turn. But minutes after setting out on our second day in Eastern Kentucky, we found ourselves not heading deeper into the prison fields, but spiraling up Black Mountain and nearing the Virginia border. Not that we wasted time.
Between Benham and Black Mountain we found Lynch, now home to 740 residents but once an industrial powerhouse supporting a population of 20,000 miners and their families. Roadside signs in front of hulking conveyors told us this was once one of the most productive coal mining operations in the world. We saw pictures of a fancy hotel razed long ago, workers chopping trees and laying rails, a community built and mobilized to wrench power and prosperity from the hills that still tower on either side of the spindly two-lane road that links Lynch with other old company towns. And inside the dank mine shaft that now offers tours and informational signs, we read that nearly 80% of the workers who actually mined the coal were black.
We realized that we had never seen pictures of African American coal miners. As for all the photos we had seen of tired, white faces grimy with coal, it turns out that in Lynch and elsewhere in Appalachia, those folks were often the bosses of black miners, privileged only by comparison as they directed the men who clawed from these mountains the most potent source of energy the world knew in the early twentieth century. Lynch and other company towns were often stops en-route to Northern factories, slaughterhouses, packing plants, and all of the other sites of great toil where the children and grandchildren of Deep South slaves made a new nation away from the cotton fields. What we call the Great Migration included time in the mines.
From Lynch we drove north to Wheelwright, another former company town, and then onto Inez. Both Wheelwright and Inez have made headlines for their prisons—two very different facilities that we discovered in two very different places. Wheelwright is a classic coal town, with tidy homes tightly grouped along a single street. Their shallow porches you can touch from your car. To drive, as we did, along dozens of miles of curvy roads through thick forest and then see hundreds—perhaps a thousand—Kentuckyans living as close together as New Yorkers is surprising. But it hardly prepares you for the prison.
At the end of Main Street in Wheelwright is a sign for Otter Creek Correctional Center, the medium-security prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest prison company in the United States. (Over the last year, its stock price rose 45%, outperforming the S&P 500 average by 25%.) CCA has operated Otter Creek since 1981 and employs about 170 people. But after many acts of abuse by prison guards, including the sexual assault of seven female inmates shipped to Wheelwright from Hawaii, Otter Creek is set to close next month.
Today, it's open, as we saw when we turned left at the Main Street sign, tentatively drove up a short, steep path, and found ourselves almost as close to prisoners sunning themselves as we had been to kids on porches moments before. A single guard sat in a security cruiser, surveying the scene. We paused a few car lengths from him; he didn't look up. Perhaps he had bigger things to worry about: the attendant at Wheelwright's gas station later looked skeptical when we asked if Otter Creek's guards might be assigned to other CCA prisons in the region. "That's what they say," she answered with a knowing glance.
Personal interactions were harder to come by at Big Sandy, the fortress-like maximum security federal prison perched—as are so many in Appalachia—atop an emptied mountaintop removal coal operation ("strip jobs," we learned to call them). You can see Big Sandy's guard tower—and nothing more—from the highway that leads to Inez, where Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty from a front porch in 1964. Dug into a steep hill that blocks any glimpse of the facility from the road, Big Sandy is surrounded by signs reminding you that it is the property of the U.S. government, and filming, loitering, and trespassing are prohibited.
We drove up the hill, passing the main gate on a deserted but impeccably paved road, and saw a sign for a new business park. The vast leveled land behind the sign was accessible via another smooth street, freshly paved and lined with curbs and storm drains. But only one modest industrial plant at the road's end suggested any real activity. The land's most obvious purpose was extending the buffer zone between Big Sandy and the real world.
Back on the prison road, we continued up the hill, passing apartments offered freely to family members visiting loved ones at the prison by a local activist. Another hundred yards up the ridge we reached a live mine warning of blasting times and the generous use of explosives. The path straightened beyond the mine and we reached the flat top of the hill, home to a hobby airport dotted with Cessnas and a comfort station for pilots—the Cloud 9 Cafe. Between the planes and decorations of teddy bears in the windows of the squat, white Cloud 9 was a sign from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources celebrating the hill's role in improving the elk population.
Where were we? Was it all—the promised business park, the productive mine, the tidy airport, the teddy bears, the rebounding elk—an effort to distract from the humanity behind bars at Big Sandy? If so, was it working?
Up next: Hip-Hop and Calls from the Hilltop: Day 3 of Scouting in Appalachia