How a new federal prison could impact eastern Kentucky’s environment and economy



The Federal Bureau of Prisons has been trying to build a new prison on a former coal mine site in Letcher County for nearly two decades.

The project has drawn backlash from passionate activists, sparked lawsuits and been stymied by shifting federal priorities. But the federal agency released a draft environmental impact statement earlier this month, moving it one step closer to breaking ground.

The statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, states that construction and operation of the prison will require excavation that alters the topography of the area, alters the course and composition of streams and wetlands, and displaces some wildlife, including protected species. It shows that it will become. The statement includes federal plans to reduce those impacts and says the economic impact of prisons is smaller than many advocates have promised.

The document also claims the project has “consistent, ongoing and unwavering support” from the people of Letcher County, including elected officials and community leaders.

The document does not address the long history of activism against prisons, and some community members and activists across the country believe that the Bureau of Prisons does not want to hear from opponents, much less put their concerns into regulatory documents. He claims he has no intention of including it.

Members of Concerned Letcher Countians and Building Community Not Prisons, two activist groups formed last year to oppose the construction of new prisons in eastern Kentucky, will meet with the Bureau of Prisons in 2023 to voice their concerns. I requested to meet with him twice. The group claims jail officials denied those requests, but the Bureau of Prisons met privately with the Letcher County Planning Commission, according to a meeting summary on its website. The Letcher County Planning Commission is a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the Bureau of Prisons to support the project. Its beginning.

In December, members of Concerned Letcher Countians and Building Community Not Prisons wrote a letter to the Bureau of Prisons outlining their concerns, stating that “prisons are unnecessary and that prisons are ignoring objections and allowing access to supporters. We are trying to make things more convenient by doing things like that.”

“The BOP’s lack of transparency and apparent ongoing communication with the (Letcher County Planning Commission) raises concerns regarding conflicts of interest,” the letter explained.

Opponents of the prison feel that the Bureau of Prisons has turned to anti-democratic behavior in its rush to build a prison that neither Letcher County nor the country needs.

“There’s a kind of secrecy about it,” said Artie Ann Bates, a semi-retired psychologist and executive director of Concerned Letcher Countians. As a prison. ”

The Bureau of Prisons declined to make officials available for interviews for this article. In response to KyCIR’s questions, agency spokesperson Donald Murphy said the draft statement’s description of unwavering support is correct.

“Over the years that this project has been considered, the majority of comments have been; [Bureau of Prisons] Comments in support of the development were received during public meetings and public comment periods,” Murphy said in an email.

The public now has until April 15 to submit comments to the Bureau of Prisons, which plans to hold a public meeting March 28 at Letcher County Central High School. Murphy said the agency will consider substantive comments during the comment period and may respond to individual comments in the final environmental impact report.

But for now, public feedback may have little impact on the agency’s plans, said Ashley Staba, who supervises student researchers at the University of Arizona’s NEPAccess project, which collects and analyzes environmental impact statements. said that it was high. Starba said community input is unlikely to change the federal agency’s final decision by the time the draft impact statement is released.

“There may be a lot of public comments that are against the project or raise other concerns, but whether it is within the scope of the issue, the scope of the project and the purpose, the needs themselves. It’s up to the government agencies to decide,’” Stava said.

long history

The Legislature first directed the Bureau of Prisons to begin considering building a prison in Letcher County in 2006.

Community members began organizing against the idea in 2015, eventually leading to a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons by local residents and incarcerated people. The agency suspended prison construction plans in 2019, citing “new information” that could affect its environmental analysis, but the funding ($444 million) remains appropriated by Congress. Ta.

Congress continued to build up funding for prisons, even as Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden called for defunding the project in their respective federal budget proposals. Both presidents pointed to the declining federal prison population and called new construction unnecessary and wasteful.

But the project had the backing of Rep. Hal Rogers, a powerful Republican whose district stretches from Boyd County in the north through Letcher County to Wayne County in the south.

Congressman Hal Rogers (center) accepts the plaque as Elwood Cornett (right) stands alongside him.

Congressman Hal Rogers’ Office

Congressman Hal Rogers (center) accepts the plaque as Elwood Cornett (right) stands alongside him.

Mr. Rogers served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 2011 to 2016, where he had overall direction for the federal budget. His ability to direct funds to projects in eastern Kentucky earned him the nickname “Prince of Pork.”

Mr. Rogers currently chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. That means funding for a new jail remains one of the tools at his disposal, and he has been instrumental in building one in Letcher County for years.

“We deny their requests every time,” Rogers told a CQ roll call in 2020 after President Trump asked Congress to cancel the fund. “We are determined to make this happen.”

Rogers communications director Daniel Smoot did not respond to requests for comment for this article. KyCIR emailed a list of questions about the prison, opposition from local residents and the potential economic impact, but Rogers’ office did not respond.

Impact and mitigation

The plan would build a medium-security prison in Letcher County to hold 1,152 people and a minimum-security prison camp to hold an additional 256 people at a cost of nearly $500 million.

New facilities are needed as the federal prison system suffers from aging infrastructure, according to an impact report released by the Bureau of Prisons.

The Roxana site, 500 acres of former coal mining land located 16 miles west of Whitesburg, is the best location for a jail in the county because it minimizes environmental impact, the statement said.

A diagram of the proposed federal prison site.

federal bureau of prisons

The proposed construction site for a federal prison in Roxana, Kentucky.

The land has already been significantly altered by coal operations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To excavate underground coal, workers at the time removed up to 200 feet of material and dumped it into a nearby cavity.

According to the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, the site is now fully reclaimed, meaning it has been returned to a natural and beneficial state.

However, the impact statement notes that building the new prison will require moving and dumping more materials into cavities to level the remaining portion of the land, and that some of the regrown forest will have to be cleared. It is explained that it will be done.

The statement said the agency will pay a fee to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to mitigate damage that construction will cause to 6,290 linear feet of streams and 1.99 acres of wetlands. The Bureau of Prisons will also pay a fee to the Imperilid Bat Conservation Fund to help reduce potential damage to the habitat of the federally endangered Indiana bat.

Construction of the prison would add a new impermeable surface to the top of the hill, meaning concrete and buildings that would prevent rainwater from flowing onto the land. The impact report says this could further increase stormwater runoff, negatively impacting the environment, polluting water and putting the public at risk of flooding.

Letcher County was devastated by the July 2022 floods, which killed 45 people and destroyed more than 9,000 homes in 13 counties.


The impact statement explains that the potential site for the jail was “provided” to the Bureau of Prisons by the Letcher County Planning Commission.

The committee is made up of 16 Letcher County business and community leaders, including former educator and preacher Elwood Cornett.

In an interview with KyCIR last week, Cornett said his main reason for supporting the Letcher County Jail is simple: its construction and operation will bring jobs to the area. The Bureau of Prisons has said it needs about 350 people to operate the prison, and Cornett said he believes those jobs will eventually go to local people.

Letcher county map.

federal bureau of prisons

Overview of Letcher County, Kentucky.

But impact statements tell a different story. Many of the jail’s full-time employees are people who already work for the Bureau of Prisons and come from a wide geographical area, and Letcher County’s housing shortage means they are unlikely to relocate to the area. ing.

The impact statement said based on experience with other federal prisons in the area, only a small portion of the workforce needed to operate the prison will come from Letcher County.

Cornet dismissed such concerns. He said the prison would start with existing prison staff with experience in prison operations, but would eventually hire more local residents.

“We know that when we open a new prison, we hire people with experience, rather than starting with new people,” Cornett said. “But as time goes on and people gain experience, we will employ more and more local people.”

BOP spokesman Donald Murphy said the agency’s goal is to hire locally and eventually fill up to 60% of the positions.

Federal prisons built in three neighboring eastern Kentucky counties did not boost jobs or the economy, according to a study by the nonpartisan nonprofit Kentucky Economic Policy Center. Clay, Martin, and McCreary counties remain some of the poorest counties in the state.

Although federal prisons have operated in these counties for decades, economic indicators analyzed by the Kentucky Economic Policy Center show that “total employment continues to decline, poverty is among the highest in the country, and household income The median value remains low.

Bates, along with other concerned Letcher County residents, said this study shows what is going to happen in Letcher County, and that groups opposed to the prison are just trying to tell the truth about what is going to happen.

“And tell people what they’re actually going to face,” she said.

Bates believes the county can come up with other options to replace the jail to bring jobs and growth to the community. He said building new facilities for higher education and job training is a better way to foster employment while meeting eastern Kentucky’s unique needs.

She warns that not only are prison jobs not coming to local people, but they’re not the kind of jobs that people in Letcher County need.

“It seems to me that it is far more prudent, sustainable and helpful to have something that clearly promotes healthier societies and economic growth than to further the harsh patterns of incarceration that we see in this country. I think so,” Bates said.

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