Whitesburg KY

Feds, anti-prison forces reach pact to dismiss lawsuit

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons and plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking to stop construction of a prison in Letcher County have jointly asked a U.S. District Judge to dismiss the complaint.

It is not clear whether this means the end of the prison project or another delay, however the plaintiffs in June posted statements on several websites saying they had stopped its construction when the BOP withdrew its Record of Decision to locate the prison here on June 20, citing “new information.”

Two aides to U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, who has championed the prison, did not return email messages about the lawsuit. The Bureau of Prisons also did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Marianne Cufone, an attorney with Green Justice, a New Orleansbased environmental justice group, said her clients agreed to dismiss the complaint because they got everything they were seeking, and there was no point in continuing the suit.

“It could come back at a later time, but we’ll be watching,” Cufone said.

The two sides asked in July for the judge to hold the case in abeyance for 30 days so the attorneys with the Justice Department and the plaintiffs could confer, with a joint status report to be filed August 19.

That report says the two will submit a joint motion to dismiss to the court by September 4. The move by the Bureau of Prisons in June to withdraw the Record of Decision was the latest delay in a 15-year quest by local leaders to have the prison built here.

A group of business and civic leaders here formed a group called the Letcher County Planning Commission and began lobbying U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers to build a prison. Rogers obtained federal earmarks of about $510,000 for construction of the prison at Roxana, and President Barack Obama signed off on the project in 2016. It was originally billed as a way to reduce prison overcrowding and create jobs in Letcher County.

However the prison ran into opposition from another local group called the Letcher County Local Governance Project, made up mostly of young people and people involved in the arts community, and from a group apparently from Texas known as the Campaign to Stop Toxic Prisons.

In January of 2017, opponents of the prison gained a powerful, if unlikely, ally when Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. Trump opposes the prison and has sought to reclaim the $510 million allocated for it for use in immigration enforcement. Congress has rebuffed his attempts to take back the money, but his administration has continued its attempts to try to stop construction of the prison.

Last November, the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., and several inmates in the federal prison system sued the Bureau of Prisons in U.S. Court of the District of Columbia, seeking to stop construction, but none of the local residents were part of that suit. An amended complaint was filed earlier this year, however, included a newly formed group calling itself Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and the North Fork Watershed. That group has no contact person listed on its website or in the lawsuit, and refers potential donors on the website to a Go Fund Me page linked to the Campaign to Stop Toxic Prisons.

Eastern Kentucky University, which has a foundation account in the name of Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods, said the group is not connected to it, and a disclaimer was later added to the group’s website saying it was not affiliated with the university.

The action this week could achieve the goal of prison opponents, including the Trump Administration. Congressman Rogers has told supporters repeatedly that the prison is still on track.

Cufone said she had no idea what the money might be used for if not for construction of the prison, but said her clients “hope that money will go back into the community for jobs and development instead of being spent on the most expensive federal prison the United States has ever seen.”

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