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Rural Blog: Justice Dept. shifts funds for proposed prison in E. Ky. to immigration enforcement

The Trump administration is dropping plans to build a federal prison in rural Letcher County, and said the $505 million allocated for it will be used instead to enforce immigration laws and improve national security.

“Both budget proposals the Trump administration has sent to Congress have included provisions to take back the money approved during the final year of the Obama administration,” Sam Adams reports for The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg.

In a notice published in the Eagle, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said there was new information related to the environmental analysis of the proposed site, which is on top of a former coal mine. But budget documents seeking to reclaim the funds list mostly economic reasons, Adams reports.

Letcher County (From Wikipedia)

A Justice Department document justifying the decision said that, because the overall prison population is declining, it’s cheaper to buy an existing facility than build one new, and the prison would be even more expensive than the average new construction, Adams reports. It also said prisons don’t contribute to local economic growth because they’re first staffed with experienced prison employees from elsewhere, and most locals won’t be experienced or educated enough to work there. Finally, the document lists unspecified “project complications” related to the county’s “unique topography” and said that challenges with land acquisition, “access, utilities, and environmental impact have contributed to increased costs and significant delays.”

“Elwood Cornett, co-chair of the Letcher County Planning Commission, which has been working on the prison project for about 15 years, said he was not aware of any issues with property acquisition, other than those already addressed earlier when the size of the property needed was reduced,” Adams reports. “He said he is only aware of one property owner who had talked to the bureau recently, and that person seemed satisfied with the negotiations. Cornett blamed the delay on the lawsuit filed by the Abolition Law Center, which he characterized as full of foolishness.'”

A group of federal prisoners sued last year to block the prison’s construction, on the grounds that building the prison would harm the environment, and that pollutants at the site would endanger prisoners, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The suit was one of many listing as co-plaintiff the ALC, an organization that advocates for prisoner’s rights.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Somerset, told the Eagle for an earlier story that the Bureau of Prisons is nevertheless continuing the process of building the prison: “BOP leadership has assured me that the bureau will continue to defend the ongoing litigation and that internal processes related to the Letcher prison construction project continue to move forward. Meanwhile, $510 million remains available for construction, as the House Appropriations Committee has again rejected the administration’s proposed recission.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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