Letcher prison opponents urge Congress to reject Rogers’ ‘fast-tracking’ provision

Published 3:50 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

Kentucky Lantern

More than 185 organizations — from across Kentucky and the nation — are urging Congress to reject “fast-tracking” construction of a federal prison in Letcher County.

A Sept. 19 letter to leaders and members of congressional appropriations committees urges them to remove language that Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky put into a House appropriations bill in July. Opponents say Rogers’ provision, giving the long-debated prison a quick path to approval, would trample the rights of the public and prisoners.

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Under Rogers provision, government decisions about “construction and operation” of the prison would not be subject to judicial review; there would be no environmental impact study, and the U.S. attorney general would be required to approve the prison within 30 days of the appropriations bill’s enactment.

Opponents in their letter say that Rogers’ provision blocking legal challenges — similar to Congress’ exemption for construction of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia — would strip away legal protections and recourse for inmates who already would be “isolated hundreds of miles from their loved ones” and “uniquely vulnerable to maltreatment and abuse.”

The letter also says, “Letcher County community members and other stakeholders from across the country should have a say when it comes to such a significant change in the community, particularly given the price tag of over $500 million taxpayer dollars and the false promises of prison-based economic development.”

Rogers has been been pursuing the project for years and appeared to prevail in 2018, but the Trump administration decided to defund the project, saying it was no longer needed, and the Biden administration excluded the project from its 2024 budget proposal. Rogers and other local boosters of the prison say it would create jobs and economic spinoffs in area suffering from the coal industry’s decline.

Rogers told Spectrum News in July: “The federal government needs more prison space. This property qualifies to the nth degree, and it’s proceeding. … We’ll continue to support it.”

The letter’s signatories range from the American Civil Liberties Union to Square Dance Farms of Blackey in Letcher County. It was sent to congressional members of the appropriations committees, the Problem Solvers Caucus and the Second Chance Task Force.