Agency renews proposal for large Eastern Kentucky prison after earlier withdrawal

The new BOP proposal is to build a medium-security prison to house 1,152 men and an adjacent minimum-security prison camp for another 256 men


Bill Estep
Lexington Herald-Leader

LETCHER COUNTY, Ky. —Federal officials have renewed a process that could result in the construction of a large federal prison in Letcher County, which some residents have pushed for years in hopes of creating jobs as the coal industry waned.

The director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons approved building a $500 million prison in the county in May 2018, but withdrew the approval in July 2019 in the face of a lawsuit.

The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison was a spot that was flattened by surface mining. The Bureau of Prisons is now re-evaluating spots for a prison in the area.
The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison was a spot that was flattened by surface mining. The Bureau of Prisons is now re-evaluating spots for a prison in the area. (Bill Estep)

However, the agency began planning earlier this year for a revised prison project, and has scheduled the first public meeting on the proposal at 6 p.m. Nov. 17 at Letcher Central High School.

The meeting is part of the process of doing an environmental assessment of the project, which is required under federal law. People will be able to offer comments on possible issues to consider during the assessment.

Years of similar study earlier didn’t ultimately result in construction of a prison, but Elwood Cornett, a member of the Letcher County Planning Commission, said he is optimistic the current process will.

“I think we’re very pleased,” Cornett said.

The commission has pursued construction of a prison as a way to boost economic development.

The new proposal by the Bureau of Prisons is to build a medium-security prison to house an estimated 1,152 men and an adjacent minimum-security prison camp for another 256 men.

The facilities would require an estimated 300 workers.

The agency said it faces a growing challenge in operating safe, humane, cost-effective prisons because an increasing number of its facilities were built more than 50 years ago, creating “a continuous need to maintain existing facilities” and build new ones when necessary.

The bureau has identified a need for a new medium-security prison and camp in the multi-state region that includes Letcher County, the agency said.

The initial proposal from the bureau was for a maximum-security prison and camp to hold about 1,200 men.

The new proposal requires a new environmental assessment because design and construction of a medium-security prison would have different potential impacts than the earlier project, the agency said.

The 700-acre site the Bureau of Prisons chose for the earlier project was a former surface mine at Roxana.

The agency has not said which site or sites it will evaluate as part of the current proposal, but that the Roxana site is still the best spot in the county for a prison, according to Cornett.

Federal officials said they are looking again at the Roxana site as well as a couple of others in the county, said Jeffery Justice, executive director of the Pine Mountain Partnership, an economic-development agency in Letcher County.

Congress approved money for the Bureau of Prisons specifically to build facilities in Letcher County, so it is still available in the agency’s budget for the new project despite the decision not to go forward earlier, according to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ office.

The push for a prison on Letcher County has been a long and sometimes rocky road.

Rogers, a key backer, first got $5 million appropriated in the 2006 fiscal year to study potential prison sites in the county, then another $444 million a decade later for construction, plus another $50 million in fiscal year 2017, according to his office.

Rogers fended off an effort in 2017 by the Trump Administration to cancel the project. The administration proposed rescinding the $444 million, saying officials didn’t feel the high-security prison was needed anymore, but Congress didn’t go along.

The earlier iteration of the prison proposal caused some division locally.

The great majority of residents who filed comments supported the proposal, seeing it as a way to help the economy, but there were local detractors, including some who argued there were better approaches to improving the local economy or worried about tying the county’s fortunes to a prison.

The project also became a target of people and groups opposed to what they argue is inappropriate mass incarceration of minority people.

An organization called the Abolitionist Law Center and 21 federal prison inmates sued to block the prison, arguing the Bureau of Prisons hadn’t provided information about the project to inmates and that the project would damage the environment and expose inmates at the facility to toxic pollutants at the old mine site.

The Bureau of Prisons responded that it had done a good environmental assessment and did not anticipate environmental threats to inmates or employees.

However, the agency later withdrew approval for the project, citing new information “which may be relevant to the environmental analysis.”

Rogers said he is pleased the Bureau of Prisons is revisiting options to build prison facilities in Letcher County.

“I have worked to secure and protect funding for this project since 2006, and with more than 300 jobs on the line, it’s a battle worth fighting in a region where jobs are desperately needed,” Rogers said in a statement. “The BOP has updated the scope of the project to address overcrowding and modernization, and I will continue to support their efforts through my work in Congress.”

Justice said the Pine Mountain Partnership and the local chamber of commerce support the prison proposal, and that the Kentucky River Area Development District said it will go on record in support as well.

The prison would provide jobs for people beyond Letcher County, Justice said.

“It’s an opportunity for our neighboring counties as well,” he said.

How to attend or comment

The Bureau of Prisons will hold a public meeting about a proposed prison project in Letcher County on Nov. 17 beginning at 6 p.m. at Letcher Central High School, 435 Cougar Drive in Whitesburg.

There also will be an option to attend virtually by calling at 877-829-8910 and using the Conference Code: 857288, or by Zoom. The meeting ID is 986 0557 5889 and the passcode is 705186.

People can also send written comments until Nov. 30 to Kimberly S. Hudson, the site selection specialist in the Construction & Environmental Review Branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Written comments can be sent to 320 First Street, NW, Room 901-5 West, Washington, DC 20534; by email to kshudson@bop.gov; or through the project website.

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