The Great Appalachian Flood of 1977: Prisoners, Labor, and Community Perceptions in Wise, Virginia
Adkins, Henry Clay
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The Great Appalachian Flood of 1977 was a historic flood that killed over 100 people, damaged nearly 1,500 homes, and displaced almost 30,000 Appalachian residents. The flood lasted from April 2nd to April 5th, 1977 affecting southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. This project focuses on the disaster relief efforts by the incarcerated population of Wise County Correctional Facility, commonly known as Unit 18, in Wise, Virginia. This project utilized locally produced primary sources known as the Mountain Community Television interviews. These interviews were archived online through the Appalshop Archives in Whitesburg, Kentucky. The Mountain Community Television interviews used for this project were recorded three to four weeks following the early April flood in Wise by media activists and volunteers. The reporters interviewed incarcerated men from Unit 18, the administrative staff and correctional officers at Unit 18, local business owners, and residential community members of Wise. This article examines how the community of Wise, Virginia reacted to the disaster relief efforts in the community. The disaster relief work performed by Unit 18 inmates in the aftermath of the 1977 flood exemplifies a growing reliance on prison laborers in central Appalachia specifically, and rural America more generally. The majority of residential community members in Wise expressed NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) attitudes toward the prison facility and incarcerated population at Unit 18. On the other hand, local business owners who directly benefited from disaster relief work and prison labor changed their opinions about Unit 18 inmates. This project details how the April flood influenced local business owners to move from "Not In My Backyard" to an expanding reliance on incarcerated labor. Most of the Wise community retained NIMBY perceptions about Unit 18 and the incarcerated population after the April flood relief efforts excluding local business owners, a small but important sect of the Wise population. The article concludes by examining Unit 18 inmates' reflections on their labor, wages, and the rehabilitation programs at the Wise County Correctional Facility in the late 1970s.
General Audience Abstract
In 1977, a catastrophic flood impacted the central Appalachian region of the United States. This flood later became known as the "Great Appalachian Flood of 1977." The flood primarily affected small towns and rural communities in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and southern West Virginia. Disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the flood varied across the region causing regional activists to criticize the government's relief efforts. In Wise, Virginia imprisoned men from Wise Correctional Facility Unit 18 volunteered to help the local community in their time of need. This project pays direct attention to Wise, VA community members' changed or solidified opinions about the local prison population at Wise Correctional Unit 18. The writing examines how Unit 18 prisoners viewed their role in the Wise community, their labor and wages, and the different approaches to prisoner rehabilitation. This project uses primary sources from the Appalshop Archives labeled as the Mountain Community Television interviews. In the late 1970s, Mountain Community Television interviewers were a group of local activists and volunteers that circulated broadcasts in southwestern Virginia. The Mountain Community Television interviews were conducted in the following weeks after the Great Appalachian Flood in Wise,Virginia. The interviews describe how local business owners of Wise and Unit 18 correctional administrators worked closely to change the working relationship between the community and the inmates at Unit 18. The vast majority of community members of Wise did not change their opinions about the location of the prison or the population of Unit 18 despite prisoners volunteering to help the community in the aftermath of the flood. On the other hand, the imprisoned population at Unit 18 advocated for more inclusion in the community with an expansion of educational and rehabilitative programs at the correctional facility after. This research is important because it highlights how rural communities and small towns contribute to mass incarceration in the United States. The project can be used to explain how Wise, Virginia directly, and central Appalachia generally, became an important landscape for the U.S. prison regime before the end of the twentieth century.
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