Local activists in Letcher County have forced the Federal Bureau of Prisons to withdraw its intent to construct a new $510 million federal prison on a former coal mine site. Spearheaded by Rep. Hal Rogers, the facility would have been the fourth federal prison to be built in Eastern Kentucky's 5th congressional district and the most expensive one in U.S. history.
After funding was allocated for construction, Ada Smith and other local residents formed the Letcher County Governance Project, a coalition opposed to the construction of the prison. "There were a lot of differing opinions in our community," Smith said. "I don't think anyone is excited about the prospect of or dreams of becoming a prison guard. And yet, it was kind of seen as, 'This is all we can get.' Actually, some of the folks on the planning commission said, 'If we could get a pie factory, we would've.'"
Attorneys with The Abolitionist Law Center and several environmental organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons, arguing the prison would negatively impact surrounding natural areas, including old-growth forests and endangered species, as well as pose health risks to employees and people incarcerated by being built on a former mountaintop-removal site located near an active mine and coal sludge pond.
Supporters of the prison say the region desperately needs jobs. But Letcher County native Tom Sexton said many studies have shown prisons in rural areas don't boost local economies, and in fact can have a negative impact. "I think central to not only this prison fight but the whole Eastern Kentucky just transition question altogether, is people in the communities not making the mistake of letting the people that got us in such bad situations to begin with, like in our case the planning commission, make the decisions for our future," Sexton said.
He said many Eastern Kentuckians submitted comments during the proposal process suggesting other ways the federal funds could be invested in the region. Some ideas included investing in water and infrastructure, student-loan forgiveness, improving broadband and internet access, and building substance-abuse recovery centers.