The Department of Justice (DOJ) has now decided to build a new prison in southeastern Kentucky, according to a senior congressman from the state, even though the agency had earlier opposed the project.
On March 31, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced Attorney General Jeff Sessions had informed him DOJ had finalized its “record of decision” to construct a prison in Kentucky capable of housing 1,200 male prisoners, most in a high-security walled facility surrounded by electrified fencing, but also some in a low-security camp.
The new facility will be in mountainous Letcher County, formerly a major coal-producing area adjoining the western tip of Virginia. The 700-acre site is in the small town of Roxana, on top of what used to be mountains, until strip mining flattened it.
A statement from Rep. Rogers’ office said the long-term representative from Kentucky’s 5th district sees a new prison as “a dual answer to prison overcrowding and the need for job creation in Kentucky’s Appalachian region.” Building the facility would mean about 1,000 construction jobs, and operating it would bring 300 or more relatively well-paid positions.
Rep. Rogers and local officials have long pressed for the project and succeeded in putting $5 million in the federal budget to begin development of the facility as long ago as 2006. Eventually, last year’s spending bill for DOJ and related agencies included $446 for the Kentucky prison. But the incoming Trump administration sought to rescind those funds; last June, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in testimony on Capitol Hill said the Department of Justice’s wanting to drop funds for the previously authorized Kentucky facility was “prioritizing” use of its funds in a time of tight budgets.
Rather than spend $444 million to gain 1,200 or so beds by building a new prison in Kentucky, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could gain more than twice as many beds while spending less than one-fifth as much to renovate existing facilities, Rosenstein argued, pointing to a $80 million renovation of a former state prison in Thomson, Illinois, which would add space for about 2,500 high-security inmates.
That stand brought a pointed rebuff from Rep. Rogers, who started by asking DOJ’s number-two executive, who began by posing this question: “What I want to ask you: Are you serious?” After defending the prison as cutting overcrowding not just in the state but throughout the entire mid-Atlantic region, and emphasizing that overcrowded prisons pose dangers not just to inmates, but to prison staff as well, Rogers wrapped up by telling Rosenstein that, since Congress had legislated the funds for the new prison, if the agency did not want to proceed, DOJ must win Congressional approval of repealing the law providing the funds, not just refuse to act.
It might just be a coincidence, but Rogers’ Congressional district has been solidly pro-Trump, who has positioned himself as a vociferous defender of American coal communities and garnered 87% of its vote in the 2016 presidential race. BOP will now start assembling the land and designing the new prison. Construction may take more than a year; local opponents say they are considering litigation.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.