Federal prisoners and grassroots activists defeated plans by the United States government to embark on the most expensive prison construction project in the country’s history.
The plans for a federal prison and labor camp in Letcher County, Kentucky, would have cost at least $444 million and resulted in serious and longstanding negative consequences for the environment and public health.
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) initially released a “record of decision” in March 2018 for the 800-acre site. It was to be built atop a highly toxic former coal mine and mountaintop removal site located nearby an active mine and coal sludge pond.
On June 5, 2019, the BOP withdrew the plans after years of sustained opposition and in spite of the agency’s efforts to subvert numerous federal safety and transparency requirements for construction projects. The agency also failed to prove the project was necessary to reduce prison overcrowding in the region.
Twenty-one federal prisoners were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit [PDF] against the plans. Each of the prisoners were at high risk of transfer to Letcher County, and they were prevented by the BOP from participating in the public comment period in violation of federal rules.
The Abolitionist Law Center and Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork River Watershed pursued the lawsuit as well.
Grassroots opposition was mobilized by the Campaign To Fight Toxic Prisons, which confronts the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental injustice through their work.
“This outcome couldn’t have happened without the courage of local residents in Letcher County and current inmates, all who risked significant blowback for standing up to oppose this prison,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, one of the founders of the Campaign To Fight Toxic Prisons.
Dustin McDaniel, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, contended “spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new prison makes no sense with the substantial decreases in the federal prison population over the last several years.”
“We hope the BOP’s action ends this prison project permanently, and that it also signifies a turning point nationally, away from investing money in prison construction, and toward increased investment in communities devastated by mass incarceration,” McDaniel added.
Plaintiffs argued the facility would “permanently degrade an already vulnerable environment.” The plans included clear-cutting 120 acres of forest habitat for endangered bats, destroying three acres of wetlands, and emitting thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases.
Additionally, the plans called for excavating and grading 59 acres of land and create significant light and noise pollution affecting all life in the area.
The lawsuit warned against cancer rates around mountaintop removal sites, which are five percentage points higher than elsewhere. These regions have a 42 percent higher rate of birth defects, and public health costs are around $75 billion per year.
The site would have housed approximately 1,216 prisoners, as well as prison employees and other workers. They would have been exposed to soil contaminated with diesel from mountaintop removal operations.
Decades ago, local headwaters and wetlands were poisoned by rocks, dirt, and dust left over from demolishing the mountaintop. The watershed was polluted with runoff contaminated with carcinogens and heavy metals such as selenium and manganese.
The local population is less than 100 people, who already suffer from the consequences of these past mining projects. Those issues would have been severely exacerbated by the strain put on the land and the utilities required to make the prison function (like water treatment facilities), expanding the local population by at least tenfold.
The BOP claimed the project would “develop additional high-security facilities to increase capacity for current inmate populations in the Mid-Atlantic Region based on the need for additional bed space.”
This contradicted claims by Justice Department officials like Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, who said, “Given the projections and needs, the [BOP] just didn’t feel that we needed that facility at this time.”
The 2020 federal budget proposal called for rescinding funding for the project entirely. But the BOP did not disclose this fact to the public in the course of the proposal, though it was required to by law.
Opponents maintained the only real justification for the project was to provide political pork to constituents of Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers through construction and development contracts.
The BOP failed to demonstrate a legitimate purpose or need for the project’s impact on the environment, as required by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).
Neither did the BOP conduct an environmental justice review as required by federal regulations.
This was a critical omission considering the project would have disproportionately impacted people of color and low-income communities, who make up the majority of the federal prison population.