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Fighting against a new prison—and winning—in Letcher County, Kentucky


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Fighting against a new prison—and winning—in Letcher County, Kentucky

The region of eastern Kentucky, once reliant on mining and the coal industry, has, over the decades, become home to three federal prisons. Last year, the Daily Appeal wrote about the controversial proposal to build yet another federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky. That project had been pushed since 2005 by local backers and a powerful U.S. representative, Hal Rogers, as a promised source of jobs in a region experiencing severe economic hardship. In 2015, the federal government allocated $444 million for the prison and that allocation was later increased to over half a billion dollars. If constructed, USP Letcher would have been the most expensive federal prison in U.S. history. 

Now it appears that the project may instead be canceled. In June, the Bureau of Prisons announced the withdrawal of its plan, a move some observers described as unheard of.

The reversal is an enormous victory for opponents. 

From the beginning, the project faced significant pushback. There were locals who questioned the environmental impact and risks of a prison in a region already ravaged by decades of coal mining and challenged the notion that their area’s economic well-being should be reliant on incarceration. 

The opposition in Letcher County was also reflected outside the county in a lawsuit filed against the Bureau of Prisons by 21 people in federal prison. The suit highlighted the potential health, public health, and environmental risks of a prison located on a mountaintop coal removal site, near an active mine and coal sludge pond. 

Significantly, the Trump administration also expressed repeated skepticism about the need for a new prison, given the declining numbers of people in federal custody. Despite the many strands of opposition, however, the project seemed to be marching toward inevitability, particularly after the Bureau of Prisons issued a Record of Decision on the project in March 2018. 

The uncertainty surrounding USP Letcher over the past several years has been a reflection of what Judah Schept told the Daily Appeal was “contradictions at the highest level of the federal government” regarding the project. Schept, an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University, spoke about the opposition toward the project and how resistance on the ground combined with the federal government’s ambivalence created a moment when a prison that seemed destined for construction could, instead, be canceled.

The final fate of USP Letcher is still unclear, with Rogers and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claiming it can still go forward. But the Bureau of Prisons withdrawal and the administration’s longstanding opposition to the plan suggest that its fate is sealed. 

In Letcher County, the arguments advanced for the prison were largely about economic growth. The promise was that USP Letcher would create 300 jobs. Yet the claim that prisons can deliver economic “hope” has become an increasingly tenuous one. The reality is that prisons “rarely bring significant economic improvements to rural communities where they are pitched as a salvation,” Tom Meagher and Christie Thompson wrote for the Marshall Project in 2016 in an analysis of the Letcher County proposal. Research that compared counties with prisons and counties without them found that after 1990 “there was no link between prisons and a growth in employment.” Even more damning, Meagher and Thompson wrote, was a finding that “for counties with lower rates of educational attainment, prisons were inversely related to employment growth.”

Many residents also challenged the idea that their economic well-being should rely on a prison economy. The Daily Appeal spoke with Ada Smith of the Letcher Governance Project, the local group that spearheaded opposition to the prison. Smith is a native of Letcher County. Her father was a coal miner, and she has relatives who work as corrections officers. 

Smith said that for decades, local and regional elites have presented prisons as sources of jobs and presented people in prisons as the “worst of the worst.” The national understanding of prison growth in the region has often focused on that messaging but the reality, Smith said, is that locally, there are many who have “an analysis of the criminal justice system” and do not believe mass incarceration, and the racism and classism implicit in it, should be the vehicle for economic development anywhere. 

Smith pointed to the work of local organizations like Appalshop. A 2006 documentary, “Up the Ridge,” produced by Appalshop, looked at a maximum-security prison built in neighboring Virginia. Local and state officials promised the prison would bring jobs to the region and demonized the people who would be held there. The film showed how people were transferred from around the country to the prison and the hardship of the families that struggled to support them from afar. It also depicted the gulf between the expectations among locals of what corrections jobs would be like (one man said he expected it to be like working in education) and the brutality and stress that they actually involved. 

Smith emphasized the many strains of organizing and advocacy in the region. “There’s been a lot of collaboration and partnership with a variety of groups,” she said, “I think most people in the country when they think about the criminal justice system and organizing and work, Appalachia does not come to mind and so it has not been invested in in terms of trying to reform what’s happening.”

Schept of Eastern Kentucky University also spoke to the Daily Appeal about a failure to depict the complexity of the region, including the opposition to the project. “Appalachia has been sort of invented in a way by media coverage,” he said, “with all the tropes that you would be familiar with—rugged, backward, lost in time, mountain hillbilly whatever. All these tropes that were invented by journalists and authors and recirculated time and time again. There’s that long history that comes up to the present.” 

“Part of the way that people, the media missteps in the reporting, is,” he said, “ that, one, they draw from that available repertoire of tropes. Second, their interlocutors are often county elites who then they use as spokespeople for a much more diverse and complex place, even if it’s a small county.”

When asked how she felt about the news about USP Letcher, Smith said it was a “win.” “This is important in our community, it’s important for our country, it’s important for people who are currently locked up or will potentially be locked up,” she said. 

“I do not know anyone who dreams of being a prison guard. The people who have organized against these prisons, we think, ‘I don’t want my kinfolks and my neighbors to have their jobs be dependent on keeping people in cages.’”

She acknowledged, though, that it “also feels hard here when people who were hoping for those jobs don’t know what to do.” 

She said people will wonder: “How will we get another half a billion investment and other jobs? What will those jobs look like? What is the federal government willing to invest in here?” Because, Smith said, “there’s little they are willing to invest in here.” 

While organizing against the prison, the Letcher Governance Project started the campaign #Our444million. It was meant to underscore the feeling, Smith said, that “the federal government isn’t listening to what people do want here.” It’s been, she said, “a beautiful process in trying to showcase that there is a lot of interest in federal support of economic development in this region but this isn’t what people were dreaming of.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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