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April 3, 2018

A window into carceral concerns in incarceration nation: "build another prison" to deal with "loss of coal work"

A helpful reader sent me this AP story headlined "Federal prison project in Kentucky wins final approval," which highlights how the building of cages gets celebrated as a form of economic development (using federal tax dollars).  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Federal officials have approved a long-discussed plan to build another prison in eastern Kentucky, sealing a deal to bring hundreds of jobs to an area hard hit by the loss of coal work.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said he was notified Friday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Letcher County project had cleared a final hurdle with federal prisons officials.  The Republican congressman said the project will be a "long-term economic shot in the arm" for the region.

"With funding in place and the completion of environmental studies, today's announcement is a tremendous milestone for Letcher County and the surrounding area," Rogers said Friday.... The prison is expected to have 300 to 400 employees, Rogers said. A 700-acre site on reclaimed mine land in Roxana was selected for the facility by federal officials....

The announcement comes as the area's economy has been reeling from a big downturn in the coal sector.  "We certainly need the job growth around here since the coal industry has dried up," Letcher County Jailer Don McCall said Saturday in praising the announcement.  "I think it's going to be a real economic boost for our little area."...

It could take four to five years to build the prison, but an estimated 1,000 or more construction jobs will provide a quick boost for the area's economy, Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward told the Lexington Herald-Leader.  The prison project had drawn resistance from some local residents uncomfortable about connecting the county's economy to a prison.

Rogers was the driving force behind landing federal money for the project.  He secured an initial $5 million in the federal budget in 2006 to search for potential sites.  The veteran congressman steered nearly $500 million needed to build the prison while he was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Letcher County project marks the fourth prison that Rogers had helped bring to his district during his time in Congress.  The others are in McCreary, Martin and Clay counties.

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I saw this terrific lengthy NBC News piece from last week covering this same story under the headline "DOES AMERICA NEED ANOTHER PRISON?"  Here is an excerpt from a piece that merits a full read:

Around the country, impoverished rural communities have pursued prisons in the hope that they will deliver them from economic hardship. This began three decades ago, when America’s rush to imprison coincided with the loss of farms, factories and other traditional sources of work that bolstered rural life. The need hasn’t diminished, as rural America still seeks a path out of the Great Recession. But the exchange of land is no longer as promising what it once was.

As incarceration rates have fallen, and the country re-evaluates whether locking people up is sound criminal justice policy, many states are closing prisons, forcing rural towns that invested their futures in bars and barbed wire to find new uses for the buildings, as well as new economic engines.

Letcher County, with 22,700 people in the southern Appalachian Mountains, appears stuck with no other solution.

“In much of rural America we get our identity from what we used to do: We used to be miners, farmers, loggers, we used to work at the plant. And as that work goes away, we want to feel like we’re part of the American story and we’re making a contribution,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg that advocates for rural communities. “Politicians have just a few arrows in their quiver, and one of them is prisons, which, whether they work or not, they seem like they’re a big deal. It’s the one thing they give to rural.”

April 3, 2018 at 12:57 AM | Permalink


Thanks for highlighting this Doug. Not only is this perverse from an economic point of view, from a political point of view it creates one political interest group opposed to criminal justice reform. Ok, corrections unions have been opposed to CJ reform for some time but this just strengthens their hands.

"The Letcher County project marks the fourth prison that Rogers had helped bring to his district during his time in Congress. The others are in McCreary, Martin and Clay counties."

This is smart and nefarious. It is clearly designed to lock down his district to incarceration nation. It doesn't matter who represents the district in the future they will never vote for something that costs them jobs.

Posted by: Sigh | Apr 3, 2018 12:39:37 PM

I was told 10 years ago by a Nigerian immigrant guard in county jail that it's common knowledge that the only growth industry for jobs in America is prison guard.

10 years ago. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change until this punishment psychosis in America is killed dead.

Posted by: restless94110 | Apr 3, 2018 2:18:05 PM

The Nigerian immigrant was wrong - https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_104.htm

Posted by: atomicfrog | Apr 3, 2018 3:57:57 PM

So the givernment js now providing employment for Eastern Kentucky. Problem is, this hell hole will be have to get filled, which fits into Trumps and Sessions policies.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Apr 3, 2018 4:14:00 PM

With any new prison, there are two questions: 1) do we need to build a new prison (either to get more beds or to replace an older non-functional facility); and 2) where do we put it.

The purpose for building the facility is not to replace coal jobs. However, from the point of view of potential communities willing to be the site of a new prison, the loss of a significant number of coal jobs (or any other major employer going out of business) is a motivating factor. It's easy for those who live in or near major cities to see a new prison as a sign of what's going wrong in the criminal justice system. But for places like Letcher County, it's a lifeline.

Take a quick look at Letcher County on google. 24,000 people located over an hour from the nearest interstate. If not a government facility, who else is going to place a major facility that far off the interstate and that far away from a major city in that small a community. While some of the other new prisons in this district are going to counties slightly closer to the interstate, Letcher County seems to be on the high end population-wise. And within government facilities, most other government facilities are going to more populated areas.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 3, 2018 4:15:47 PM

Guards will be paid $50,000. They will prevent $2 million in damage from the crimes of each felon, each year. There will be additional returns from these felons not spawning baby criminals with single mothers. They are more productive than Apple employees.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 3, 2018 6:46:04 PM


Right. I hope I did not come across as poor person bashing because that was not my intent. What to do about jobs in rural America is a serious problem that demands far more attention than it is getting from our elites. But just because rural poverty is a problem doesn't mean that the best way to lift up the poor is through the immiseration of others, which is what prison are.

“Politicians have just a few arrows in their quiver, and one of them is prisons,"

That is nonsense and the underlying problem. There are lots of creative solutions out there. Prisons are the low hanging fruit.

Posted by: Sigh | Apr 3, 2018 8:20:42 PM

Even more curious is the fact that the DOJ's 2019 Budget Request called for the elimination of the construction of this facility as "unnecessary." But it becomes less curious when you consider that Mitch McConnell is from KY.

Posted by: john Webster | Apr 4, 2018 1:09:02 PM

Sigh, I just know that the last time that my state built prisons, almost 20 years ago, many of the communities that bid for the prison resembled these four counties in Kentucky -- small rural counties having to deal with the fact that even farming is more automated than it used to be. When the old employers are laying off people, any new employer is a good thing -- whether a prison, a mental health facility, chicken processing, etc.

In this case, I think -- while the politician in question probably believes that more prisons are a good thing -- that his main goal is to get whatever bacon he can for his district and he has an easier time persuading his colleagues to fund new prisons in his district than some other government program or facility.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 4, 2018 2:32:35 PM

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