DOJ Backs Away from New Prison Planned for Eastern Kentucky

DOJ Backs Away from New Prison Planned for Eastern Kentucky

For more than a decade, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has planned to build a new prison in mountainous Letcher County in eastern Kentucky. But when the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent in its proposed fiscal year 2018 budget to Congress, funding for the project was no longer included, and DOJ proposed rescinding the $444 million that Congress approved for the project two years ago.

This brought cries of outrage from local officials and the area’s representatives in Congress, who anticipated gaining about 300 construction jobs for the area in building the new facility, as well as employing about 300 full-time staff members after the complex opened. However, environmental activists and others opposing the plan have greeted the DOJ’s about-face on the plan with statements of approval and delight.

At a mid-June legislative hearing on DOJ’s budget, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), a former House Appropriations chairman, pressed DOJ’s second-ranking official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, about the missing funding. Rogers forcefully said the new prison in eastern Kentucky “is already the law” because a budget containing funds for it “has already been passed into law.”

For his part, Rosenstein spoke of facing a “tough budget choice” in light of current levels of federal inmates and forecasts for the future, noting that the total federal prison population has declined by 14 percent in recent years. As a result, he noted, the Bureau of Prisons “just felt we didn’t need” the prison planned for Roxana “at this time.” Questioning Rosenstein, Rep. Rogers observed the Government Accountability Office has found 30 percent overcrowding in the federal prison system and 52 percent in high-security prisons, which he added posed significant health and safety problems for guards and inmates alike.

In the environmental impact statement BOP prepared in 2015, the agency claimed that building a new high-security prison to hold about 960 inmates and a medium-security prison camp for about 260 inmates would ease overcrowding in its Mid-Atlantic Region. Besides Kentucky, that region includes Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Local officials also say the new facility would alleviate overcrowding, which they contend is still a problem in many federal facilities.

Rep. Rogers says the already-enacted law leaves the Trump administration no way to kill the project other than passing an amendment through Congress to change existing law. At the mid-June hearing on DOJ’s budget request, Rogers declared current law requires funding for the new prison since it’s been “appropriated, authorized, everything is in order.”

Some opponents claim the new prison, to be built on a former mountaintop-removal coalmine, would pose serious health and environmental problems. They cite such issues as drinking water quality, exposure to radon or chemicals from mining waste, hazards from a dozen natural gas wells operating nearby, potential burdens on local infrastructure, and interference with the habitat of endangered or otherwise protected species.

BOP still hasn’t released a record of a decision formalizing the site selection, but local officials continue to predict a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Letcher County federal prison complex is no more than a year away. Rep. Rogers, a 19-term veteran legislator, also insists the project is on track, despite DOJ’s professed desire to defund it.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).