AuthorEisenberg, Ann M.

COAL, CAGES, CRISIS: THE RISE OF THE PRISON ECONOMY IN CENTRAL APPALACHIA. By Judah Schept. New York: New York University Press. 2022. Pp. v, 234. Cloth, $99; paper, $32.


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1)

When I picked up Judah Schept's Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia, (2) I expected a particular story, with which I was already somewhat familiar. I expected to read about how, although life under King Coal in the Appalachian coalfields had been grueling and abusive, the loss of coal had pushed these communities even further into economic desperation. (3) I expected a narrative of how localities in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, distressed and yearning to replace the livelihoods of yore, turned to the short-term Band-Aid of prison construction and management, swapping one morally and physically hazardous mono-economy for another. (4) I expected white supremacy and prison gerrymandering as themes--to learn about how low- and middle-income white people, despite their own hardships, can assuage themselves that they are not on the bottom of society's hierarchy by taking on positions of power over Black and Brown people trafficked from cities and disingenuously counted as local residents to attract benefits. (5) In short, I expected a variation of an urban-rural divide story.

Schept does include this story in his book. But he artfully complicates it, highlighting it in some ways and turning it on its head in others. Schept walks a delicate line, managing to neither diminish predominantly Black and Brown suffering under mass incarceration nor vilify or patronize the predominantly white populations who lobby for prisons based on false promises that their children will have a chance to live and work locally in the new prison economy. (6) Racial erasure, violence, cruelty, and entrenched anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity are central themes of Coal, Cages, Crisis (pp. 9, 18-20). Yet, by centering diverse experiences--including those of Black and immigrant coal miners, Indigenous women prisoners, and white prison abolitionists--Schept commingles and enriches storylines that might typically be told separately (pp. 129, 136, 143-44, 199-225).

Schept's purest ire is reserved for racial capitalism and the vehicle through which it reproduces itself: the carceral state. Coal, Cages, Crisis characterizes the carceral state as an amoeba, hungry for human bodies (p. 222). Schept portrays the amoeba as ready to shapeshift to meet new terrains and conditions across space and time (pp. 199-200). Disinvestment, exploitation, and abuse in one place will pop up in some other form somewhere else, Schept asserts. The amoeba consumes bodily autonomy, hope, and human breath down the shafts of coal mines, inside prison walls, in the toxins of poisoned landscapes and neighborhoods, and through the hands of police.

Coal, Cages, Crisis illuminates subtle connections in the ways large-scale systems of oppression take root and reproduce themselves through flows of capital, resources, and people. Yet, Schept establishes this interconnectedness with a diverse set of seeming minutiae, having pored over local government records, institutional symbols, local newspaper stories, and other archives and interviews in order to take the reader on a regional tour across space, place, and time. Through this tour, point by point, Schept makes the carceral state's relendess hunger clear. Racial capitalism and the carceral state are friends to no one, he argues, except perhaps the handful of local and distant elites that enable, enforce, and rationalize them. After all, he points out, if Kentucky continues its current rate of incarceration, every single person in the state will be incarcerated by the year 2135 (p. 121).

In Schept's analysis, law is merely another structural factor shaping human life alongside institutions, corporations, collective psychology, landscapes, individuals, and groups. Law--as Schept illustrates by examining the Surface Mining Coal and Reclamation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act--can be a vehicle for subjugation, a tool of empowerment, or a mix of both. (7) By contrast, Coal, Cages, Crisis presents multiracial class organizing as the only conceivable way out of a "long, violent history," even if such organizing is inevitably imperfect and never finished (pp. 233-34).

I argue in this Review that Coal, Cages, Crisis is an invaluable story of how the strictures of racial capitalism transcend urban and rural locales often considered more alien to each other than alike. (8) In other words, the story in Coal, Cages, Crisis is one of urban-rural interconnectedness in varied states of unfreedom under racial capitalism. The universality of unfreedom in one shape or another, even outside the cage, illustrates the necessity of radical solidarity politics and the futility of moderation. Schept's work demonstrates that the central fight for justice in the United States and beyond is less between urban and rural populations than it is between our socioeconomic hierarchy's (small, overwhelmingly white) top and (voluminous, multiracial, disproportionately nonwhite) bottom. That fight is never easy, in part because racial capitalism coerces the subordinated to trade solidarity for survival.

Part I summarizes Schept's effort in Coal, Cages, Crisis to document the rise of the carceral economy in Appalachia, the carceral economy's relationship to coal, and the significance of both coal and cages to the human suffering created by racial capitalism. Although Coal, Cages, Crisis is not aimed at comparing urban and rural conditions due to its explicit focus on rural Appalachia (p. 5), Part II draws out the book's themes of urban-rural interconnectedness. Oppression in one place signifies, shapes, or mirrors oppression in another-revealing the unfreedoms under racial capitalism's structures and ideologies that transcend U.S. populations and landscapes. In particular, Schept's framing of how racial capitalism treats urban and rural communities as waste people in waste places illustrates how common cycles of disinvestment and abuse manifest in ways tailored to their racial and geographic contexts. While those contexts vary, subordinated populations become similarly unfree even when not incarcerated. Part III highlights how the rare phenomenon of multiracial class organizing emerges convincingly from Schept's narrative as the only chance for even a sliver of hope in beating back--or maybe just delaying for a time--the amoeba's hungry maw.


    Drawing on Schept's "eight years of periodic ethnographic and archival research," Coal, Cages, Crisis "examines how the prison came to shape, and take shape in, Central Appalachia" (p. 5). The study focuses on West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky (pp. 5-6). The book includes a thematic focus throughout on shrewd local government officials and their allies, actors keen on courting prisons as a path to local economic viability (pp. 8-9, 14). And indeed, Schept acknowledges, "[i]t is tempting to argue that the prison simply replaces the coal industry in Central Appalachia as a primary source of regional employment," and as a much-needed source of revenue for local governments with strained budgets (p. 14).

    However, Schept's central thesis is not that prisons are the new coal. In fact, they likely can never be. Coal dominated Central Appalachia for more than a century and employed tens of thousands of local workers at its peak, dwarfing the number of prison jobs that can ever realistically exist (p. 15). "Rather than as punishment or economic development," Schept argues, these coalfield prisons are proliferating "to manufacture capitalist social order amidst very real crises in the region" (p. 15).

    Schept's main argument is that "the rise of cages in the coalfields reflects a new strategy for an old project: the state's ongoing need to manufacture and maintain capitalist social order and social relations" (p. 5). In other words, racial capitalism (9) and the carceral state work together to produce crises, including prison overcrowding, "deindustrialization, structural joblessness, and revenue shortages" (p. 10). In turn, the state must "try to solve crises it also helped to create" (p. 14). And it does so by putting many people in prison, employing others to imprison them, and compelling everyone who is not yet caged or caging to envision their lives and communities in relation to prisons (pp. 181-82, 190). While prisons may be branded as paths to criminal justice or economic revitalization, their main function is to maintain and secure the racial, economic, and geographic hierarchies at the heart of racial capitalism.

    Coal, Cages, Crisis is organized in three parts: "Extraction and Disposal" (Part 1), "Profit and Order" (Part 2), and "Carceral Social Reproduction" (Part 3). Part 1, "Extraction and Disposal," "examines the spatial and political relationships among coal, waste, and incarceration, focusing on sites of mountaintop removal that subsequently became the locations for prisons" (p. 29). The two chapters in Part 1 emphasize "the prison as part of a regional historical geography of waste and enclosure" (p. 29).

    This account includes an analysis of how the War on Poverty and the War on Crime converged during the same era to catalyze rural prison proliferation. The former failed to address Appalachian inequality structurally, meaning regional precarity and joblessness would persist. The latter kickstarted the era of mass incarceration, creating the need for the state to find places to put caged people (pp. 70-72). The need to create jobs in Appalachia and the need to find places for caged people would subsequently work together to create a synergistic impression of the natural inevitably, and desirability, of the Appalachian prison...

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