Comment on Letcher County Prison Proposal by May 8

The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison is a spot at Roxana that was flattened by surface mining. Photo by Bill Estep with the Lexington Herald-Leader

The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison is a spot at Roxana that was flattened by surface mining. Photo by Bill Estep with the Lexington Herald-Leader

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has re-opened the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) comment period for the $444 million prison that's been proposed for Letcher County, Kentucky. We need your help telling the Bureau of Prisons that they are not welcome here, that the citizens of Letcher County deserve better than a federal prison, and that mass incarceration is no solution for anyone.

Last year we hea hundreds f stories about what local people would do with #our444million instead of building a federal prison. Here are some things local people said would be a better use of that money:

  • Build cutting edge community healing facilities and needle exchange programs across the region
  • Fund makerspaces for skill sharing, community training, and re-tooling
  • Participatory budgeting to drive civic engagement & governing transparency 
  • Run fiber optic internet to homes and businesses to support digital literacy & economic growth
  • Grow local food economies and health by supporting farmers and farmers' markets
  • Create an investment endowment for keeping young people in the region

We are asking that you send your #our444million stories, ideas, suggestion, and environmental concern to the Bureau of Prisons.

We are also asking that you request the BOP to conduct a full and comprehensive environmental assessment of potential direct impacts to the Lilley Cornett Woods, an old-growth forest that is only a mile away from the proposed prison site. Lilley Cornett Woods is one of the only old-growth forests in this part of the United States, and its unique value cannot be glossed over with a few words in the BOP's EIS process.

he BOP said at the last ublic hearing on April 12 that they have not contacted Lilley Cornett Woods yet. A list of talking points related to local concerns is below. 

Click here to see the full EIS submit your comment to Isaac Gaston, Site Selection Specialist for the Bureau of Prisons, igaston@bop.gov. Or contact Tarence Ray at tarence.ray@gmail.com or Tanya Turner at tanyabturner@gmail.com for questions about how to make sure the BOP receives your comment.

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Talking Points for the BOP's Draft Supplemental Revised Final EIS

1. Impacts to Lilley Cornett Woods

  • The BOP needs to conduct a thorough and comprehensive survey of the potential impacts to the Lilley Cornett Woods, an old-growth forest that is only a mile away from the proposed prison site at Roxana.
     
  • The Draft Supplemental RFEIS only mentions potential air and light pollution to the Lilley Cornett Woods site. It does not mention potential impacts to soil and water quality, or the impacts of increased road traffic to the area.
     
  • Old-growth forests are very rare. Lilley Cornett Woods is not only a destination of recreation for residents of southeastern Kentucky; it is also used as a research station for students of Eastern Kentucky University and the Letcher County Central High School.
     

2. Utility concerns

  • The Enhanced Utility Investigation Report in the latest Draft Supplemental RFEIS mentions that the Letcher County government will have to put up $1.4 million for sanitary sewer infrastructure to the prison. The county is currently in a $1.3 million budget shortfall; we therefore have no money to pay for this infrastructure.
     
  • The Draft Supplemental RFEIS mentions that both the Letcher County and Knott County Water and Sewer Districts have accrued multiple violations for water quality over the past decade. The infrastructure of these two water districts is old, outdated, and needs serious upgrading. Not only does this endanger the health of potential prisoners and workers at the prison facility, it demonstrates that the county government is ill-equipped to deliver adequate services and resources to residents and businesses within the county.
     
  • Both the BOP and the Draft Supplemental RFEIS have been vague about what it means for the Letcher County Water and Sewer District to have “committed to” addressing the aforementioned problems. This indicates that both the Letcher County Fiscal Court and the BOP are rushing through this process, and are not listening to the very real concerns of citizens in the surrounding area.
     
  • The BOP may think it’s getting a bargain by choosing to do business with the Letcher County Fiscal Court, but its financial situation should speak for itself. Who would want to do business with an entity that is quite literally broke?
     

3. Topography, geology, and soils

  • Compacted fill should not be used for building pads. The Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary in Martin County is known locally as “sink-sink” because it was built on the compacted remains of a former strip mine. Its foundation is quite literally sinking into the earth. This is because, after mining, it is very difficult to compact the soil properly for building foundations. The soil “swells,” leaving air pockets in the soil. As the land gradually settles, it sinks.
     
  • Mine spoil should not be used as valley fills. Filling ephemeral and perennial streams with “overburden” or excavated materials creates a range of problems for the hydrologic balance of a watershed. This practice increases siltation and sedimentation in streams, which in turn harms wildlife and increases water treatment costs and needs. It also increases the likelihood of erosion on slopes, and it drastically increases the possibility of dangerous metals and acids leaching into waterways.

LGP Publishes Correspondence Between Rogers, BOP Under Freedom of Information Act

In July 2016, the Letcher Governance Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The request was for all correspondence between Congressman Hal Rogers's office and the federal Bureau of Prisons pertaining to the proposed USP Letcher prison project. 

BOP fulfilled the request in February 2017. It is published in its entirety below.

While mostly administrative and procedural in nature, the files do reveal a few key details about proposed USP Letcher that community members have been so far unable to obtain through their local government and through Congressman Rogers's office. 

Some of these takeaways are:

  • In May 2016 (page 13), a draft Record of Decision was written by officials within the Bureau of Prisons. The timing of this draft is questionable; it was written mere weeks after the comment period closed for the Revised Environmental Impact Statement (REIS). This comment period generated thousands of comments both in favor and in opposition to the prison. It is our belief that the BOP would have been unable to review all of these comments and subsequently issue an accurate and informed Record of Decision within three weeks.
     
  • The fact that the draft Record of Decision was never issued highlights the work that community members have done so far to resist USP Letcher. For example, landowner and community member Mitch Whitaker refused to let the BOP use his land for the construction of the prison. This forced the BOP to go back and revise the REIS, thereby delaying a Record of Decision.
     
  • According to an email from May 16,2016 (page 8), the BOP determined that, "While comments were received on the revised-FEIS, none of them were determined to be substantive." This was written after the BOP received thousands of comments both in favor and in opposition to the prison.
     
  • According to emails from May 2016 (pages 8-9), it could take up to 4-6 years for contracts to be awarded and construction to be completed on USP Letcher. This is in addition to the 12-18 month-long process of land acquisition. This timeline is important for two reasons:
    1. Community members have been unable to get solid, coherent answers from their leaders on where the development process is at, and how long it will take; and
    2. Congressman Hal Rogers has said that utility construction would begin in Spring 2016; this process has not yet been initiated. 

We invite all stakeholders and community members to review and share the documents. 

Press Release on today's silent protest of SOAR innovation summit

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 6, 2016

Letcher Governance Project holds silent protest at SOAR Innovation Summit in opposition to proposed federal prison

Contact:
Eric King – (606) 634-5896
Ada Smith – (606) 303-2677

Members of the Letcher Governance Project are holding a nonviolent silent protest this morning at the SOAR Innovation Summit in Pikeville, Ky. The group demands more creative and innovative solutions for eastern Kentucky’s economy than an additional federal prison.

The protest is part of the group’s #our444million social media campaign, which was launched after the announcement that $444 million in taxpayer dollars had been allocated for the development of a federal prison in Letcher County. The campaign aims to demonstrate that there are better economic solutions for the region than prisons, and $444 million would go a long way towards implementing those solutions.

The Letcher Governance Project is additionally concerned with the gradual increase of prisons in the central Appalachian region. Proposed USP Letcher will be the fourth prison that Congressman Hal Rogers has worked to bring to eastern Kentucky. The three previous examples – prisons in McCreary, Martin and Clay counties – have not significantly contributed to the economies of those communities. Two recently-opened prisons in nearby Wise County, Virginia, have also failed to deliver on early promises of jobs and economic benefits. The Letcher Governance Project points to these counties as proof that prisons do not boost rural economies.

The campaign and protest demonstrate that many people from the area oppose the prison, contrary to the statements of local officials, Congressman Hal Rogers, and the Bureau of Prisons. The Letcher Governance Project has submitted dozens of comments to the Bureau of Prisons citing social, economic and environmental concerns with the development process of proposed USP Letcher. However, Congressman Rogers and the Bureau of Prisons have consistently refused to acknowledge these concerns in public statements, despite the fact that many of them come from Congressman Rogers’ constituents.

The Letcher Governance Project is therefore protesting Congressman Hal Rogers’ presence at the SOAR Innovation Summit, and calls on the Congressman to consider other solutions to eastern Kentucky’s economy. In this time of economic transition, eastern Kentucky residents demand solutions that foster healing, improved working conditions, and better standards of living. Residents across the region have used the #our444million hashtag to envision what that kind of economy might look like, and we urge Congressman Rogers to acknowledge and act on those ideas.

Finally, the Letcher Governance Project wishes to express solidarity with groups working across the country to change the United States criminal justice system by stating unequivocally that black lives matter to eastern Kentuckians. This country overwhelmingly imprisons more people of color than white people, and we refuse to allow our local economies to be dependent on this form of racist exploitation. 

What Would You Create in Your Community with $444 Million?

High Rock, Pine Mountain, Ky

High Rock, Pine Mountain, Ky

Hello allies,

$444 million has been allocated for the construction of a federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, making it the only federal prison in progress in the country. While public officials tout the proposed prison as a surefire way to boost our local economy, we know mass incarceration to be a false solution in communities across the country. This would be the fourth federal prison that Congressman Hal Rogers has built in our Congressional District. The previous three facilities were placed in economically distressed counties and have done very little to help local communities. 

In response to the allocation of tax dollars for a new federal prison , residents formed the Letcher Governance Project. Despite officials attempting to convince the public that this is a done deal, it is not. Rather than settling for what has already been proven as a failure, we opt for creative and innovative solutions to uplift the local economy and foster healing in our communities.

Stand with us as we oppose the construction of a federal prison and promote community driven solutions to the problems we face, surmounted by decades of political corruption and misguidance.

This is what we need you to do: 

  1. Write a short post on any social media platform to help change the story. Use the hashtag #our444million with your vision to show how you would invest $444 million tax dollars in Eastern Kentucky. Let’s populate this hashtag with real investment ideas from real people.
     
  2. Spread the word! Encourage friends to use the hashtag, send out this request for support to your list serves. Share our website, Twitter, and Facebook.

Will federal prison keep E. KY locked in cycle of poor choices?

Mitch Whitaker is a master falconer who runs the raptor rehabilitation program for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office in Letcher County.

Mitch Whitaker is a master falconer who runs the raptor rehabilitation program for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office in Letcher County.

Note: This op-ed, from Letcher County resident Mitch Whitaker, first appeared in the April 1 Lexington Herald-Leader, after it was announced that $444 million had been allocated for the construction of a federal prison near Whitaker's home.

In the 1980s, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife chose an old strip mine near Gordon to release several dozen deer as part of a deer-stocking program in Perry and Letcher counties. The state was reclaiming former strip mines by repopulating them with wildlife. 

I was there when they turned the deer loose from the trailers. I lived — and still live —right below the old strip mine.

The wildlife on this 400-acre plot of land has greatly rebounded since it was stripped and reclaimed. I would know; I use 30 acres of it to rehabilitate wild birds of prey. With the help of the University of Kentucky Extension Office in Letcher County, our raptor rehabilitation program is the only one of its kind east of I-75. 

That plot of land has directly contributed to the success of our program; it has supported me through retirement and it allows me to teach local children about the unique biodiversity of our region.

Now all of that is in danger. 

The federal government, with the help of our United States representative, Hal Rogers, has announced that $444 million in federal funding has been allocated to build a maximum-security federal prison on the site. 

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is still determining land rights at this time, but has said that eminent domain will be used if negotiated sales are not reached.

I have large, old-growth oak trees on my land that will be cut for the construction of this prison. The Kentucky River, which winds around the site, will be disturbed with sedimentation from road construction to the facility. And the bird rehabilitation program that we have fought hard to preserve will suffer greatly. 

But I won’t be the only one affected. All Letcher Countians will be forced to pay for this prison in some way. The property tax base of nearby McCreary County was greatly reduced when a federal prison was built there. In a desperate attempt to make up for the lost money, the county issued a payroll tax. There’s no reason to think that the same won’t happen here.

Are there better uses for $444 million in federal funding? Sure there are. But we aren’t getting a say in how that money is spent. We could build a factory up on that site. 

We could build a solar farm and provide electricity to Kings Creek and Roxana for a hundred generations. But these are not the options being provided to us. Once that facility is built, the land will be fenced off to us forever, protected by armed guards and electric wire.

The local group that worked with Hal Rogers on getting this done, the Letcher County Planning Commission, has been alarmingly vague on the economic benefits of the prison. When asked for hard numbers on job growth and net economic growth, they go silent. 

In fact, there are individuals on the commission who have great financial interest in seeing the prison built. These individuals are investing in building apartment complexes that they can then rent to prison guards who move here for work. 

Is this a conflict of interest? Will the majority of Letcher Countians see any of that money, or will it remain in the hands of a few powerful people? It remains to be seen.

My story is a parable of the choices Eastern Kentuckians face in this period of economic transition. Will we honor the natural history and environmental assets of the region by preserving sites like this? 

Or, will we continue the same path we’ve been on since the 1800s, when the only bone being thrown to us was coal? 

This piece of property has already been imprisoned, and it’s just now getting back to the point of literal and figurative liberation. Why do it again?


Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article69555002.html#storylink=cpy