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Here's how a new federal prison could impact environment, economy in eastern Kentucky

A field that will be the site of a new federal prison.
Emily Posner
This field in Letcher County, Kentucky is the proposed site of a new federal prison.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is moving one step closer to building a prison in Letcher County despite concerns of locals, activists.

For nearly 20 years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been trying to build a new prison on the site of a former coal mine in Letcher County.

The project has drawn pushback from committed activists, sparked litigation and been stymied by shifting federal priorities. But the federal agency moved one step closer towards breaking ground earlier this month by releasing a draft environmental impact statement.

The statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, shows the construction and operation of the prison will require excavation that will change the area’s topography, alter the path and composition of streams and wetlands, and displace some wildlife, including protected species. The statement includes the federal agency’s plans to mitigate those impacts and states the prison’s economic impact will be smaller than many supporters have promised.

The document also claims the project has the “consistent, continuous, and unwavering support” from people in Letcher County, including elected representatives and community leaders.

It does not mention the long history of activism against the prison, and some community members and activists from across the country argue the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t want to hear from the opposition, much less include their concerns in regulatory documents.

Members from Concerned Letcher Countians and Building Community Not Prisons, two activist groups that formed this past year to advocate against building a new prison in eastern Kentucky, requested to meet with the Bureau of Prisons twice in 2023 to lay out their concerns. The groups say the prison officials denied those requests, but according to meeting summaries on the Bureau of Prison’s website, the agency did meet privately with the Letcher County Planning Commission, a nonprofit that has been working with the Bureau of Prisons in support of the project since its inception.

In December, members of Concerned Letcher Countians and Building Community Not Prisons wrote a letter to the Bureau of Prisons outlining their concerns: The prison was unnecessary, and the agency was showing favoritism by granting meetings with its supporters while ignoring its opposition.

“BOP’s lack of transparency and its apparent ongoing communication with (the Letcher County Planning Commission) raises concerns about conflicts of interest,” the letter explained.

Those in opposition to the prison feel the Bureau of Prisons has turned to anti-democratic behavior in a rush to build a prison neither Letcher County nor the country needs.

“It just seems to be sort of a cloud of secrecy about it," said Artie Ann Bates, a semi-retired psychologist and secretary of Concerned Letcher Countians. “And I just don't think that's a healthy environment to discuss something as serious as a prison.”

The Bureau of Prisons declined to provide an official to be interviewed for this story. In response to KyCIR’s questions, agency spokesperson Donald Murphy said that the draft statement’s description of unwavering support is correct.

“Throughout the years that this project has been under consideration, the majority of comments that the [Bureau of Prisons] has received during public meetings and public comment periods have been in favor of the development,” Murphy said in an email.

The public now has until April 15 to submit comments to the Bureau of Prisons, and the agency will hold a public meeting on March 28 at the Letcher County Central High School. Murphy said the agency will consider any substantive comments during the comment period and may respond to individual comments in the final environmental impact statement.

But, at this point, the public feedback will likely have little impact on the agency’s plans, said Ashley Stava, who oversees student researchers at the University of Arizona’s NEPAccess project, which collects and analyzes environmental impact statements. Stava said that by the time a draft impact statement is published, community input rarely changes the final decisions of federal agencies.

“There could be a lot of public comments that are opposed to the project or raising other concerns, but it is up to the agency whether that's within the scope of the issues, if it's within the scope of the project and the purpose and need itself,” Stava said.

Long history

Congress first directed the Bureau of Prisons to start looking into building a prison in Letcher County in 2006.

Community members started organizing against the idea in 2015, eventually leading to a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons by locals and incarcerated people. The agency suspended the drive to build the prison in 2019 citing “new information” that could impact the environmental analysis, but the money – $444 million – remained allocated by Congress.

Congress continued to set aside money for the prison despite both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden calling for the project to be defunded in their respective federal budget proposals. Both presidents pointed to declining federal prison populations and said the new construction was unnecessary and wasteful.

But the project had the support of Rep. Hal Rogers, a powerful Republican whose district stretches from Boyd County in the north, through Letcher County and down to Wayne County in the south.

Rep. Hal Rogers (center) receives a plaque as Elwood Cornett (right) stands alongside.
The Office of Rep. Hal Rogers
Rep. Hal Rogers (center) receives a plaque as Elwood Cornett (right) stands alongside.

Rogers was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 2011 until 2016, which put him at the helm of the entire federal budget. His ability to steer money towards projects in eastern Kentucky earned him the nickname the “Prince of Pork”.

Rogers is currently chairman for the appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, which means money for new prisons is one of the levers still at his disposal, and he’s been committed to building the prison in Letcher County for years.

“We reject their request every time,” Rogers told CQ Roll Call in 2020, after President Trump asked Congress to cancel the funds. “We’re determined to make this happen.”

Rogers's communications director, Danielle Smoot, has not responded to a request for comment for this article. KyCIR emailed a list of questions about the prison, opposition from community members and the expected economic impact, but Rogers’s office has not responded.

Impacts and Mitigation

The plan is to build a medium-security prison housing 1,152 people and a minimum-security prison camp housing another 256 people in Letcher County for nearly $500 million.

The new facility is needed because the federal prison system is beset by aging infrastructure, according to the impact statement published by the Bureau of Prisons.

The statement says the Roxana site, 500 acres of former coal-mined land that sits 10 miles west of Whitesburg, is the best location for the prison in the county because it minimizes the impact on the environment.

A diagram of proposed federal prison site.
Federal Bureau of Prisons
The proposed site where a federal prison will be built in Roxana, Kentucky.

The land has already been significantly altered by coal operations in the late 1980s to early 1990s. To get to the coal below ground, operators at the time removed up to 200 feet of material and then dumped it in nearby hollows.

The site has now been fully reclaimed, according to the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, which means it has been returned to a natural and beneficial state.

But the impact statement explains that to build the new prison more material will need to be moved and dumped into hollows to level out what's left of the land, and some of the regrown forest will be cleared.

The statement explains that the agency will pay a fee to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to mitigate the damage that construction will have on 6,290 linear feet of streams and 1.99 acres of wetland. The Bureau of Prisons will also pay a fee to the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund to mitigate potential damage to the habitat of the federally-endangered Indiana bat.

Prison construction will also add new impervious surfaces to the hilltop – concrete and buildings where storm water can’t drain into the land. This, according to the impact statement, will lead to more storm water runoff that can harm the environment, pollute water and put the public at risk from flooding.

Letcher County was devastated by the July 2022 flood that killed 45 people and destroyed over 9,000 homes across 13 counties.


The impact statement explains that potential sites for the prison were “offered” to the Bureau of Prisons by the Letcher County Planning Commission.

The commission is made up of 16 Letcher County business and community leaders including Elwood Cornett, a retired educator and preacher.

Cornett told KyCIR in an interview last week that the main reason for supporting the prison in Letcher County is simple: Its construction and operation will bring jobs to the area. The Bureau of Prisons has stated it will take approximately 350 people to run the prison, and Cornett said he believes those jobs will eventually go to local people.

A map of Letcher County.
Federal Bureau of Prisons
An outline of Letcher County, Kentucky.

But the impact statement tells a different story. Much of the prison’s full time staff will be people already working for the Bureau of Prisons and come from a wide geographic range and Letcher County’s housing shortage means they are unlikely to relocate to the area.

The impact statement says that, based on the experience of the other federal prisons in the area, only a small portion of the workforce needed to run the prison will come from Letcher County.

Cornett brushed aside those concerns. He said the prison will start out with existing Bureau of Prison employees who have the experience to run a prison, but will eventually hire more locals.

“We understand that when they're opening a new prison, they are not going to start out with novices, they will use experienced people,” Cornett said. “But as time rolls on, and as people get experience, they'll hire more and more of the local people.”

BOP spokesperson Donald Murphy said the agency's goal is to recruit locally to eventually fill up to 60% of the positions.

Research by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Kentucky Center for Economic Policy shows that federal prisons built in three nearby eastern Kentucky counties did not boost employment or the economy. Those counties, Clay, Martin and McCreary, remain some of the poorest counties in the state.

Federal prisons have been operating in those counties for decades, but economic indicators analyzed by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy show that “total employment has continued to fall, poverty remains among the highest in the country and median household incomes have remained low.”

Bates, with Concerned Letcher Countians, said the research shows what will happen in Letcher County and the groups pushing against the prison’s construction are just trying to tell the truth about what’s to come.

“And tell people what they're actually going to be facing,” she said.

Bates believes the county can come up with a different alternative to a prison to bring jobs and growth to the community. She said building new facilities for higher education or job training would be better ways to boost employment while addressing the specific needs of eastern Kentucky.

She warns that not only are the prison jobs not coming for local people, they are not the kinds of jobs people in Letcher County need.

“Having something that clearly promotes a healthier society, and economic growth, to me seems a lot more sensible, sustaining and helpful, than furthering the severe incarceration pattern that we have in the country,” Bates said.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.

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