WHITESBURG — To many people, the push for a federal prison in Letcher County means an opportunity to create jobs as the coal mines that once underpinned the local economy wither.
More than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions in support of building the prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
"Any jobs or opportunities the prison brings to this county are desperately needed," Richard Smith of Blackey said in a comment to the agency.
Some, however, are uneasy about tying the local economy to what they see as misguided national policies that have resulted in bulging federal prisons and disproportionate numbers of minority inmates. They see a chance to open a new front against incarceration rates through challenges based on environmental rules.
For example, a national advocacy group filed extensive comments against the proposed facility and is gearing up to challenge it in court if necessary.
"We are proposing that Letcher County, the only new federal prison proposed for construction, become ground zero for that fight" against mass incarceration, said Panagioti Tsolkas, who heads the Prison Ecology Project for the Human Rights Defense Center.
The Bureau of Prisons has proposed building the prison to relieve overcrowding at other facilities.
The agency said the prison would house an estimated 1,200 men — most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence, but some at a minimum-security camp — and provide about 300 full-time jobs.
The bureau published the final environmental impact study on the proposed prison July 31, starting a 30-day period for people and organizations to make final comments.
A decision on building the prison could come by the end of the year. After that, it's up to Congress to fund construction.
Members of a local planning commission have been working on the prison proposal for more than a decade.
One of the commission's goals was to increase the number of good-paying jobs in the county. In casting about for ideas, members focused on a prison, said Elwood Cornett, a retired educator who co-chairs the commission.
That followed the example of officials in several other counties in the region.
There already are federal prisons in Clay, McCreary, Martin and Boyd counties in Eastern Kentucky — housing a total of about 6,000 male inmates — as well as one in southwestern Virginia and three in southern West Virginia, along with a number of state prisons.
The only other federal prison in Kentucky is the medical facility in Lexington, where there are 1,800 male and female inmates.
Cornett said he wasn't keen at first on the idea of a prison, in part because of security concerns.
As he learned about the tight security at federal prisons and considered the potential for jobs, however, he became convinced a prison would help diversify the local economy and provide employment, Cornett said.
"They are not subject to the impact of recessions and depressions," he said.
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons were not encouraging when the committee started asking them to put a prison in Letcher County. Officials did not see it as a convenient location, Cornett thinks.
But supporters had a powerful ally in U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who has represented the 5th Congressional District for more than three decades. Rogers has been in leadership roles for years and now heads the all-important House Appropriations Committee.
Rogers got $5 million in the federal budget in 2006 for the Bureau of Prisons to start the process of finding and evaluating a site for a prison in the county.
When the process seemed to languish, "Hal got it shook loose," Cornett said.
Cornett said the Bureau of Prisons would not consider sites above underground coal mines because of its experience building the Martin County prison.
There had been underground and surface mining at that site. A federal official estimated in 2000 that the cost of excavation to make the ground stable would total $40 million, making it the most expensive building site for a federal prison up to that time.
Working with the planning commission, the Bureau of Prisons ultimately settled on two potential sites, one at Payne Gap, near Jenkins, and the other at Roxana. Both were former surface-mine sites.
After doing environmental studies, the bureau chose 700 acres at Roxana as the preferred site.
The estimated cost of building the prison and other facilities, such as a firing range, would be $300 million to $400 million, officials have said.
The debate over the prison is being played out against the backdrop of efforts to transform the economy of Eastern Kentucky.
As recently as 2011, coal miners accounted for 15 percent or more of the labor force in a number of Eastern Kentucky counties, according to a publication from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
However, coal jobs started dropping sharply in 2012 as the regional industry was battered by competition from cheaper natural gas, tougher rules to protect air and water quality, and other factors.
The downturn in coal puts opponents of the prison in the uncomfortable spot of being against something that will employ people when so many of their neighbors are out of work.
Public comments to the Bureau of Prisons have been overwhelmingly in favor of building the prison.
But those who don't want the prison in Letcher County argue the benefits would not be as great as many people hope.
At first, many of the jobs at the prison would go to experienced people who transfer from other facilities, leaving fewer slots for new hires.
And it's possible many people would commute from elsewhere, meaning less benefit for the local housing market. Many workers at the prisons in McCreary and Clay counties live outside those counties, for instance.
Prison opponents also point to studies that conclude the boom in building prisons in rural areas has not transformed local economies.
For instance, two Penn State researchers said their study of prisons built from 1985 to 1995 showed "the economic impacts of the prison development boom on persistently poor rural places, and rural places in general, appear to have been rather limited."
In Kentucky, one Martin County official predicted in 2001 that new prisons in Eastern Kentucky would alter the region as much as any coal boom or poverty program, but Martin, McCreary and Clay counties remain among the poorest in the nation.
Some people are concerned that becoming identified with a large prison would hinder other types of development, such as tourism, and they think it would benefit the county more in the long run to invest more in other approaches, such as support for small businesses and improvements in quality of life to attract entrepreneurs.
"I think there's sort of a sense that we're just focusing all our transition effort" on the prison, said Tom Sexton, a former Whitesburg City Council member who now does organizing for the Sierra Club.
The Human Rights Defense Center has argued that the Bureau of Prisons did not properly assess the environmental impact of the prison, including damage to habitat for endangered species and the potential health effects on prisoners living atop a former coal mine, and didn't properly consider alternatives to locking up so many people.
"Addressing the issue of over-incarceration would be a more time-efficient and cost-efficient manner to address overcrowding than providing a short-term Band-Aid solution by building this facility ...," the nonprofit group said in a comment on the environmental assessment.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which has been active in pushing principles such as innovation, broad access to opportunity and environmental restoration to guide the economic transition in Appalachia, signed on to the center's comments, along with other groups and individuals.
The Bureau of Prisons said in response to those comments that it did an appropriate environmental assessment and did not anticipate any environmental dangers to employees or inmates. And the agency said its job did not include developing sentencing guidelines.
Filling a need
Supporters of the Letcher County prison say the issue is not the nation's sentencing laws but rather the economic need in the county.
The local planning commission would be happy to see other businesses develop, and there are efforts underway to promote that, said Mike Caudill, head of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp. and a member of the commission.
However, there is a need for prisons now — and always will be — and there's no reason Letcher County shouldn't benefit from meeting that need, he said.
"As long as there is a need, I'm glad we have an opportunity to fill it," Caudill said.
Cornett said the planning commission doesn't plan to stop working if it succeeds in its long effort to bring a prison to the county.
"I would hope this is just the beginning of other types of things we can develop," he said.
Caudill said he did not think having a prison in Letcher County would discourage other kinds of development.
In addition to providing jobs, the prison would create opportunities for local businesses to sell goods and services, supporters contend.
Officials in some other rural Kentucky counties said prisons have brought economic benefits.
McCreary County Judge-Executive Doug Stephens said that when the federal prison there opened, many of the jobs went to people who moved from other federal facilities.
However, as those employees went on to other prisons or retired and more local residents got qualified, more of them got jobs, Stephens said.
"Employing our local people obviously is a plus," Stephens said.
Todd Jones, who owns a convenience store near the prison, said the benefits have not been as great as many people first hoped, but they are real. He sees that in purchases by prison employees and visitors.
"I do see prison workers on a daily basis," Jones said. "I'm sure it has a positive impact."