Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Locals split over economic impact of a proposed federal prison in Appalachian coal country

Controversy is brewing in a coal-depressed Eastern Kentucky community over a proposed federal prison that could bring 300 much-needed jobs to the area but raises concerns among others that having such a facility in the area would hurt economic development, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The prison proposed for Letcher County (Family Search map) "would house an estimated 1,200 men—most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence but some at a minimum-security camp."

"More than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions in support of building the prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons," Estep writes. "Some, however, are uneasy about tying the local economy to what they see as misguided national policies that have resulted in bulging federal prisons and disproportionate numbers of minority inmates. They see a chance to open a new front against incarceration rates through challenges based on environmental rules."

One commenter, Richard Smith, wrote, "Any jobs or opportunities the prison brings to this county are desperately needed," Estep writes. Others say the issue goes deeper than jobs and the economy. Panagioti Tsolkas, who heads the Prison Ecology Project for the Human Rights Defense Center, told Estep, "We are proposing that Letcher County, the only new federal prison proposed for construction, become ground zero for that fight" against mass incarceration. The Bureau of Prisons said the new facility was needed to relieve overcrowding at other sites.

A Penn State study found that prisons built from 1985 to 1995 showed "the economic impacts of the prison development boom on persistently poor rural places, and rural places in general, appear to have been rather limited," Estep writes. But others fear that "a large prison would hinder other types of development, such as tourism, and they think it would benefit the county more in the long run to invest more in other approaches, such as support for small businesses and improvements in quality of life to attract entrepreneurs."

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