Letcher County’s chances for prison boosted by federal budget

Elwood Cornett, a retired educator who has helped lead the the effort to have the federal government build a high-security prison in Letcher County, shows the preferred site for the prison, on a spot flattened by surface mining at Roxana. 8/6/2015
Elwood Cornett, a retired educator who has helped lead the the effort to have the federal government build a high-security prison in Letcher County, shows the preferred site for the prison, on a spot flattened by surface mining at Roxana. 8/6/2015

Letcher County’s chances of becoming home to a large federal prison improved Friday as Congress approved a budget that including more than $400 million for such a facility.

The budget does not specify that the money must be used to build a prison in Letcher County but that appears to be the most likely outcome.

Local officials say the proposal for a prison in Letcher County is farther along in the lengthy federal review process than any others in the nation, and they have a powerful ally in Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who heads the House Appropriations Committee.

Rogers worked to include money for a new federal prison in the budget, and called members of the Letcher County Planning Commission Friday to let them know about the appropriation.

Rogers told commission members the budget includes $444 million for a new federal prison, said Elwood Cornett, co-chairman of the panel.

The money solidifies the county’s bid, Cornett said.

“I think they’re gonna build it,” Cornett said of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. “I would not be surprised to see dirt moved before 2016 is over.”

Opponents of the prison said earlier that it was the only one in the country being proposed for construction.

Cornett and other residents have sought a prison in hopes of boosting the economy of the county, where coal jobs have dropped sharply. Some residents oppose building the prison, but more than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions supporting it.

300 The estimated number of full-time jobs expected to be created by a proposed federal prison in Letcher County.

The Bureau of Prisons has not made a final ruling, called a record of decision, on whether it will build a prison in the county. The agency has been studying the potential for years, however, and could make a decision soon.

The work of Cornett and other local supporters has given Letcher County an edge in the search for a prison site, according to Rogers’ office.

“Thanks to the leadership and progress of the Letcher County Planning Commission, Letcher County is well on its way to a record of decision, which will allow a prison to be built in the Roxana community,” Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said Friday.

Smoot said Rogers worked to get money in the budget to “fast-track” construction of a new prison in order to relieve overcrowding at other facilities.

Many medium- and high-security federal prisons have 40 to 50 percent more inmates than they were built to house, she said.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to an inquiry about the appropriation Friday.

Cornett and others began trying more than a decade ago to get the Bureau of Prisons to build in the county, enlisting Rogers’ help to push the agency.

Rogers got $5 million included in the federal budget in 2006 for the bureau to begin the process of finding and evaluating a site for a prison in the county.

The agency ultimately picked two potential sites, one at Payne Gap, near Jenkins, and the other at Roxana. Both sites in the mountainous county had been flattened by surface mining.

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 would be $300 million to $400 million, officials have said.

The prison would house about 1,200 men, most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence, but some at a minimum-security camp.

It would provide an estimated 300 full-time jobs.

The bureau published the final environmental impact study on the proposed prison July 31, finding no conditions that would bar construction.

Opponents argued the agency did not do an adequate environmental assessment, though the bureau contends it did.

Some local residents expressed concern that becoming identified with a large prison would hinder other types of development, such as tourism, and think it would benefit the county more to invest in other development approaches, such as support for small businesses and efforts to attract entrepreneurs.

Prison supporters don’t think the facility would interfere with other development.

The prison is a chance to bring stable jobs to the county at a time when many people are out of work, Cornett said.

“I think it’ll create a good number of jobs,” he said.

There are already four large federal prisons in Eastern Kentucky, in Clay, Martin, McCreary and Boyd counties, that house a total of about 6,000 male inmates.

There’s also a federal prison medical facility in Lexington.