Criminal Justice Infrastructure in Washington D.C.; Reflection by AC4 Fellow, Zachary Zill

It was a picture-perfect summer day when I went searching for answers about the dramatic transformation of my hometown that has taken place over the past twenty years. In front of me, a ribbon of highway traversed the hilly countryside of western Maryland. Above my head, cotton candy clouds glowed in an electric blue sky. I was on my way to the Federal Correctional Institution at Cumberland, my first stop on a tour of six Appalachian prisons run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The clarity of the day stood in sharp contrast to the obscurity of—and implicit violence surrounding—the story I was trying to unearth.

This is a story that is literally buried behind prison walls. It can be found in forgotten, impoverished, and sparsely-populated rural places. It is also present in the city, if one searches carefully enough. It is there, hidden amidst the little rubble that remains of urban neighborhoods that have been torn down and rebuilt.

The subject of my research is the city of Washington, DC. But the answers I sought lay in a stretch of Appalachia several hundred miles west of the city: the area where DC’s prison hinterlands begin. Though most residents of the city would not know it, this region plays a crucial role in making DC what it is today.

Since the late 1990s, when the city began incarcerating as much as 2% of its population, Appalachian prisons are where thousands of DC residents have ended up. At the same time, the very neighborhoods where many of those prisoners came from experienced a surge of investment for real estate development. These booms in incarceration and neighborhood redevelopment happened so close together in time and space; could they be linked? The legislative record begins to provide an answer: the 1997 National Capital Revitalization Act, passed in response to a growing fiscal crisis of the DC Government, contained provisions that incentivized reinvestment in decaying downtown neighborhoods. The very same Act also offshored DC’s prisoners into the federal BOP system, sending them off to places like FCI Cumberland.

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The motivation behind looking to Appalachia in order to understand DC stems from the ideas of environmental historian William Cronon. Cronon argues that studying the city as an isolated unit provides, at best, an incomplete picture. Only by understanding cities as inherently linked with the rural places that act as suppliers and repositories of various resource flows, can we fully account for the costs of urban growth. Only by following the “paths out of town” taken by resource and waste flows can we truly appreciate how our cities have come to be what they are.

This framework has guided my research through the following questions: what has the sustained outflow of a significant portion of DC’s population as prisoners meant for the city? How closely has it overlapped with the revitalization of core urban neighborhoods? Where are the places that now house the DC residents who are caught up in the criminal justice infrastructure? What has the incarceration boom meant for those places?

This is why I’ve come to Appalachia. More than half a dozen federal prisons in this region house one third of all those convicted of felonies under DC statute. Beyond Appalachia, the remainder of DC’s prisoner population ends up in BOP prisons as far away at Texas, Colorado, or California. In turn, the city has helped provide Appalachia with what is currently its biggest growth industry: prisons. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as jobs from the coal industry slowly vanished, and federal aid for social welfare programs was withdrawn, prison building became the economic lifeline for places like southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

The link between incarceration and economic revitalization is easy to see here. Two of the prisons I visited, FCI McDowell and USP Big Sandy, were built in 2003 and 2004 on top of closed coal mines. In 1998, just months after the DC Revitalization Act’s passage, Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers promised optimistically that the construction of new prisons would “change the face of our region for generations to come.”

The incarceration boom also changed the face of Washington, DC. Through the flow of thousands of prisoners, the city and its hinterland became linked together in a mutualistic relationship that remains almost entirely hidden to those who visit DC today and marvel at the revitalization of large swaths of once-forgotten urban neighborhoods.

By uncovering these hidden relationships, we start to see that the promises made with the advent of urban revitalization were not all kept. Specifically, the pledge that redevelopment would make life better for all city dwellers cannot hold true once we understand that 2% of the urban population was forcibly removed hundreds of miles from their homes, at the same time as the city was being “revitalized.” Moreover, from the vantage point of places like Inez, Kentucky or Welch, West Virginia, the prison economy does not appear to be the positive transformation that was promised. Instead, it looks more like a continuation of a long running economic dynamic, in which remote areas with few options accept industries that most Americans would rather not think about.

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In the months to come, I will undertake a quantitative spatial analysis of the overlapping patterns of incarceration and urban redevelopment in DC. Comparing spatial concentrations of incarceration within the city to areas of redevelopment will allow more insight into the details of this connection.

Though my research concerns the fate of incarcerated human beings, I’ve found that the data I need is hidden behind a daunting and impersonal maze of bureaucratic facades. The week before heading to Appalachia, I spent hours on the phone with and in the offices of various city and federal officials. I was told that basic data such as residential addresses for prisoners is not tracked. I was told that just to learn what year a prison opened, I would have to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The DC department of buildings, responsible for overseeing construction in the city, claimed to not track building permit data more than four years old. The FOIA requests I submitted were denied—some were denied multiple times.

In short, the institutions responsible for overseeing these processes of incarceration and of urban development, though ostensibly public, are not easily subjected to public scrutiny. That message has been repeated to me in various forms, in every denial of my requests for basic data — data which almost certainly is tracked, though nobody seems to know where.

As my project unfolds, I will continue searching for this data, in the belief that it can shed light on the hidden costs associated with DC’s urban revitalization, and in the hope that it can bring some degree of recognition to the ghost landscapes – both urban and rural – that are linked by DC’s criminal justice infrastructure.


Author: Zachary Zill is a masters student in the Sustainability Management program in the School of Professional Studies. The fieldwork for his AC4 sponsored project “Capital Offense: Discarded People, Discarded Spaces and Washington, D.C.’s Criminal Justice Infrastructure” involved traveling to six Appalachian prisons. 

Note: this reflection was written on August 31, 2016.

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