When Eileen Mullins heard that a federal prison would be built on a remote eastern Kentucky mountaintop, she immediately started raising money to build a place for poor families to stay while visiting incarcerated relatives.
The retired teacher whose son was imprisoned for manslaughter has seen the hardship faced by families from inner-city New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., who must make long hauls through mountain roads for even short visits.
"I saw hurting people," said Mullins, whose Haven of Rest lodge is set to open this summer. "Some drive for hours in cars that would hardly run to get to the prison. Others had enough money for gas but not enough for food. They had to sleep overnight in their cars because they couldn't afford hotels."
Churches and charities are stepping up to help the families they see as unintended victims of a prison-building boom designed to bring jobs to remote stretches of Appalachia. Their hardship is multiplied in the federal system, because those eight prisons in the region can take inmates from anywhere in the country.
"It's not unusual for people to have to travel 10, 12 hours to get here," said John Benish, who operates a hospitality house with his wife near the federal prison in Alderson, W.Va. "Christian ministries are left to help these hurting people. Part of the calling for churches is to visit prisoners and to be there for prisoners' families, because they're hurting, too."
Robbie Pentecost, a nun who serves as executive director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, said accommodating the visits is important not just for humanitarian reasons, but also because studies have shown that inmates who receive visits are less likely to be repeat offenders.
Pentecost said church leaders are considering opening hospitality houses in other Appalachian communities where prisons have been built.
For Mullins, images of grim-faced mothers, fathers, wives and children waiting to see their loved ones were as unforgettable as seeing her own son in orange prison garb and shackles for the first time. She said she longed to help those other families.
"No matter how brokenhearted she was, she could see the needs of those around her," said June Rice, who serves on the ministry's advisory board. "In her gloom, she could see that she at least had a way to get to prison to visit her son and enough money to buy food and stay overnight at a hotel."
Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said the government's goal is to house inmates within 500 miles of their homes. But that is not always possible, she acknowledged.
Filmmaker Nick Szuberla, who is working on a public television documentary on inmate families titled "From the Holler to the Hood," said the situation is unavoidable because prisons are not being built near big cities.
"When you look at where prisons have been sited in the last 20 years, you see that rural communities are predominate," he said. "Cities don't want them. Rural communities need the jobs they bring."
Kentucky towns such as Manchester, Whitley City and Inez, which were hurting from a declining coal economy, welcomed the prisons for the jobs they created.
"Because Appalachia is a depressed area, people need jobs," Benish said. "When you go to work as a correctional officer at a federal prison, you start out at more than $30,000. In the economy here, $30,000 is darn good."
David Aker, mountain missions director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said the initiative by Mullins will be crucial for many relatives of the 1,400 inmates in the nearby Big Sandy prison. After the lodge opens, it will provide free housing and food for families.
Aker said he has been impressed that so many people have been willing to help Mullins with the project.
"They understand," he said, "that but for the grace of God, this could be me."