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A proposed prison in Letcher County reopens old divides

Jonese Franklin

In Letcher County, Kentucky, a revived plan to build a controversial $500 million federal prison is moving forward.

After revoking the initial version of the project in 2019, the federal Bureau of Prisons plans to revisit the process through drafting a new environmental impact statement.

During a public meeting at Letcher County Central High School, federal officials explained the plan, which now includes a medium-security prison and adjoining minimum-security prison camp, instead of a maximum-security prison, which was initially proposed.

Around 150 people attended the meeting, 54 virtually, though the online participants were cut after some yelled obscenities unrelated to the meeting.

Republican Congressman Hal Rogers and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, two major proponents of the prison, did not attend. Rogers’ communications director, Danielle Smoot, spoke on his behalf.

“The [Bureau of Prisons]has updated the scope of the project to address overcrowding and modernization,” she said.

In a series of public comments, community members emphasized the need for economic opportunities in the county.

Some expressed hope that the new prison would lead to further economic development for loved ones to stay in, or return to, their hometown. Business owners, such as Don Childers of Childers Oil and the Double Kwik gas station chain in Whitesburg, showed up in support, as did local officials.

Outgoing Democratic state Rep. Angie Hatton spoke out in support of the prison on economic grounds, though, she said, her support is cautious.

“The rehabilitation focus is something that I can live with, as a citizen here, a whole lot more easily than I could live with the idea of a maximum security prison,” Hatton said. “The prison would actually help us get a hotel, and it also will be a really important way that we might get an airport here.”

Others argued there was very little evidence that a new prison would bring such sweeping changes.

Letcher County resident Artie Ann Bates pointed out that despite similar correctional institutions, McCreary, Martin, and Clay counties remain among the poorest in the country, with population still on the decline.

McDowell County, West Virginia, where a comparable medium-security institution was established, is the lowest-earning county in West Virginia. This argument echoed concerns about the original version of the project.

Some, like Knott County resident Randy Wilson, said other needs should be prioritized in wake of July’s catastrophic flooding.

“I appreciate the work they put in on it, I just wish we would go in a different direction,” said Wilson. “We’ve had a very dramatic flood and just, people need houses.”

Officials said comments would guide the next phase of the project, as the bureau moves forward with site selection.

Officials said they are only considering the same six sites, just like the the last attempt, which led to their controversial selection of an abandoned mine site in the community of Roxana.

The bureau will prepare a draft environmental impact statement, to be released for public review and comment, with an additional public meeting to be scheduled in the new year.

Comments on this phase of the process can be submitted at the project’s official website through Nov. 30, 2022.

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Katie Myers is covering economic transition in east Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY. She previously worked directly with communities in Kentucky and Tennessee on environmental issues, energy democracy, and the digital divide, and is a founding member of a community-owned rural ISP. She has also worked with the Black in Appalachia project of East Tennessee PBS. In her spare time, Katie likes to write stage plays, porch sit with friends, and get lost on mountain backroads. She has published work with Inside Appalachia, Scalawag Magazine, the Daily Yonder, and Belt Magazine, among others.
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