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There’s a new plan for a prison in Letcher County, and public comment opens soon

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The Bureau of Prisons has filed a new notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for a new federal prison in Letcher County, Ky.

It’s been three years since the Bureau of Prisons withdrew its original more than $500 million plan for a maximum security prison in Letcher County. That project had been in motion since 2005, heavily backed by Republican Hal Rogers, a U.S. Congressman from Kentucky who represents parts of eastern Kentucky. It would have been one of the most expensive prisons ever built in the country. The region’s representatives have pursued prison-building as a means of economic development; as the Ohio Valley ReSource previously reported, Rogers has worked to have three prisons built in his district. Like other American states, Kentucky has a higher incarceration rate per 100,000 people than any other country, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.

The previous plan had some steep opposition, however. In 2018, lawyers with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Abolitionist Law Center sued to stop the project on behalf of people who would be incarcerated there, calling the prison’s proposed location a “toxic strip mine site.” A group of young locals and regional allies, many with their own relationships with the justice system, organized under the banner of the Letcher Governance Project. They demanded a say in economic projects that purported to be about their future.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration was not supportive of the project, citing inefficient spending. And fourth-generation Letcher County landowner Mitch Whitaker put up his own resistance.

The facility was initially plotted right up to the edge of his property in the community of Roxana. He said he was never asked for permission to build the facility, as the bulk of the site was on an abandoned strip mine he did not own. In public comments and interviews with media outlets, Whitaker emphasized that it would still diminish his quality of life and the lives of others in Roxana.

“I told them, in the nighttime, I can go out on my back porch, and I can see the Milky Way,” Whitaker said. “I said, ‘You put that old prison down,’ I said, ‘I’ll never see my sky again.’”

He intends to be buried on his land, in view of that night sky.

Whitaker, who’s also a falconer and conservationist, celebrated when the plans were withdrawn. However, he was dismayed to learn that the project is currently in the process of a revival. The notification of a proposed environmental impact statement dropped quietly last week. The new version of the project will be downgraded to a medium security prison, and is considering sites outside of the original site in Roxana. On top of that, proponents say it could offer the cash-strapped county more than 300 jobs, and reduce overcrowding at other prisons. But to Whitaker, it’s still suspect.

“Someone would say, ‘Oh, you just don’t want it because it’s in your backyard.’ Well, that’s just another reason I don’t want it,” Whitaker said. “Would you want your children working in a prison?”

After the project failed in 2019, the appropriated money was still tied to the prison plan. At the time of the withdrawal, Rogers told the Ohio Valley ReSource that “internal processes related to the Letcher prison project will continue to move forward.” Sen. Mitch McConnell also said he would work to ensure the continuation of the project in some form.

The news of the project’s resurrection comes in the midst of a turbulent period for Letcher County. The region is recovering from a catastrophic flood that upended thousands of lives. Whitaker doesn’t think it’s a coincidence the project was brought back up within two months of the flooding.

“It’s sort of scary,” Whitaker said. “They could fast track it right back again, especially with this disaster here getting all of our attention.”

“Totally coincidental,” insisted Elwood Cornett.

Cornett is a preacher at the Old Regular Baptist Church. He also chairs the Letcher County Planning Commission and sees the prison as a golden economic opportunity for the county. He said he’s known about the new prison plan for a while and thinks it’s a good time to move forward.

“We need a boost in our economy and in our people’s employability and so on,” said Cornett. “I think the prison might not be the greatest thing that I can imagine that I’d want here. And probably anybody could say that. But right now, I don’t know many things that would be better for us than 300 or 400 new jobs.”

Cornett hopes the project will come right back to Roxana.

Whitaker and Cornett are neighbors. They live about a mile up the road from each other, and they both care about the future of Letcher County, but they’re far apart on what, exactly, that future should look like.

In their day-to-day lives, they both deal with the same infrastructural issues that Cornett hopes the prison can solve. A major reason many supported the prison is because it was attached to an Abandoned Minelands Fund grant that would have brought water and sewer lines to Roxana. But Whitaker doesn’t think the prison should be a condition for badly-needed infrastructure improvements.

When Whitaker mined coal as a young man, he said, he had no idea how much the area’s natural resources were worth. That wealth, he said, should have come back home.

“Now it’s all gone,” he said. “And look, we’re left with still nothing out of the coal severance money that came in. Through our coal, we should have gold water lines, we should have a skyscraper down here in town, you know.”

The county’s entire proposed operating budget for 2022-2023 is $12 million, a tiny fraction of the cost to build the prison.

Whitaker said he doesn’t know where federal officials plan to put the new facility.

“If some other Letcher Countian wants to bow up and refuse, like I did, I’m behind him 100%,” Whitaker said. “Because, you know, this is, this is our land. It’s already been destroyed two or three times.”

The Bureau of Prisons will look at new potential prison sites during a 30-day scoping period ending Oct. 28. BOP officials will then issue a draft environmental impact statement and invite public comments for at least 45 days, which will include written comment opportunities and a public meeting. Afterward, the BOP will issue a final environmental impact statement, which will be finalized after a public review period of at least 30 days.

Federal officials recommend those who want more information on the project reach out to Kimberly Hudson at kshudson@bop.gov or visit the proposed prison’s website.

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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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