by Kevin W. Bliss
On December 8, 2022, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) released a summary of the Public Scoping Meeting held in Whitesburg, Kentucky, regarding its proposed bid to build a $500 million federal prison on top of a former coal mining site in Letcher County.
The meeting, held on November 17, 2022, allowed residents and concerned citizens to express support for or opposition to the new Federal Correctional Institution. It also marked a return from the dead for the project, which BOP abandoned in 2019 under pressure from local activists. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.20.]
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Barrier) is the project’s biggest supporter, backing plans since 2005 to build a new prison in Letcher County. Claiming it would revitalize an economically dying community he represents, he secured millions of dollars necessary for the project from Congress in fiscal 2016 and 2017 appropriations bills.
Then organizations and local homeowners joined together to fight prison building as a replacement economy. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Abolitionist Law Center filed suit in 2018 on behalf of the individuals who would eventually be incarcerated in the new BOP lockup, calling the prison’s proposed location “a toxic strip mine site.” Faced with that opposition, BOP withdrew its plans in June 2019.
But now they’re back.
Rogers’ ‘replacement economy’ idea is still driving it. Letcher County is one of the poorest counties in Kentucky, with a meager $12 million annual budget after losing both coal industry jobs and the revenue generated by coal-operations taxes. The industry now employs the fewest people in the state since the 19th century. Worse, extreme Mountain Top Removal – a mining system used throughout Appalachia in which the top of a coal-rich mountain is literally blasted off – has left the area with polluted streams and increased cancer rates.
The planned prison in Letcher County would be the eighth lockup built in eastern Kentucky, four of them for BOP. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s incarceration rate has increased steadily, despite the current national push toward prison reform. The state has the second highest rate of female incarceration in the nation and would be seventh worldwide in overall incarceration if it were a country. The Vera Institute of Justice reported the entire state will be incarcerated by the year 2136, if current trends continue.
Critics of the project who weighed in at the meeting included Mitch Whitaker, whose land abuts the proposed prison site, along with others from the Letcher Governance Project, which successfully beat back BOP’s earlier construction plans.
“...[T]his is our land,” stated Whitaker, adding in a reference to coal-mining’s toxic legacy: “It’s already been destroyed two or three times.”
Other opponents of the prison project want to see the funds used to rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure damaged during devastating floods in July 2022. Still others proposed using the money to improve education, expand social and health care programs and respond to the opioid crisis, which has hit the rural region hard.
The next step in the project involves preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, followed by another period for public comments. No dates have yet been announced for either.
Sources: WKMS, WYMT
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