Plans Move Forward for New Federal Prison in Kentucky

ROXANA, Ky. — U.S. Rep. Hall Rogers’ office released a statement in late February that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) plans to use $444 million in federal money to construct a new federal prison on a 700-acre site in Roxana, although opponents could still block the project and the BOP has yet to release a final decision about the project.

Rogers, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, has long supported the Letcher County prison project and worked to get the money appropriated for it, reported the Lexington Herald-Leader. For more than a decade, a local planning commission has been trying to get the BOP to build a prison in Letcher County to help boost the local economy, which is struggling after thousands of coal mining layoffs. The prison would employ about 300 people in the region.

The BOP studied two potential sites, which had booth been leveled by mountaintop mining, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. However, it ultimately chose 700 acres at Roxana to build on and released a final environmental impact statement in July 2015 that stated there were no conditions that would make it difficult for construction. The next step in the process is getting the record of decision from the BOP, which is expected in May. After the project gets the record of decision, the BOP can move forward with architectural design and work on water and sewer service, Rogers said in a statement.

The new prison would not only bring jobs to the area, but it would also help local businesses who can provide services for the facility. In fact, Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward told the Lexington Herald-Leader that officials are creating a plan to provide training for local businesses on the federal procurement process. The environmental study described the prison as being large enough for about 1,200 men, which would help ease overcrowding in other federal prisons. Most of the facility would be high-security with a lethal electrified fence, while there would also be some minimum-security areas.

While most locals in the count support the prison project because of the jobs it would bring, others are concerned about what becoming a “prison county” could do for the area’s development. Other groups argued that the Bureau of Prisons did not do an adequate enough environmental assessment.

The Prison Ecology Project filed a comment to the BOP last year, opposing the permitting of the new prison due to its location on a former coal mining site. The Prison Ecology Project’s comment provided an analysis of the proposed facility locations. It addressed the health impacts on the surrounding community from prison sewage and industrial waste; health concerns for inmates forced to use highly contaminated water; impacts to the forest, farmland and regional waterways; impacts to more than 50 threatened species; and included a discussion about alternatives to mass incarceration. The Prison Ecology Project is one of several organizations that might ask a judge to review the decision if the BOP approves the prison project.

Elwood Cornett, a member of the local planning commission in support of the prison, however, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that contractors have done a lot of survey work and even water sampling at the site to check the stability of the ground.

If the project gets the record of decision, it would become the fifth federal prison in Eastern Kentucky, which already houses about 6,000 male inmates in Clay, Martin, McCreary and Boyd counties.