The scheduling of a community forum in Whitesburg next Tuesday to allow Letcher County residents to meet with federal Bureau of Prisons officials about a proposal to locate a prison here can be seen as a sign that such a facility will indeed be built here, either at a site at Payne Gap or on a tract at Roxana.
Like many Letcher County residents, we had plenty of questions some 10 years ago when a volunteer group of business leaders, government officials and private citizens announced they were working with U.S. Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers to bring a prison to to the county. The group, known as the Letcher County Planning Commission, had been meeting for a year before members announced their intent in 2004 to ask that a prison be built here. Commission members said their reasoning for asking the federal government to bring a prison to Letcher was based on one thing — the need for jobs that pay well and aren’t subject to the boom-and-bust cycle of the coal industry.
According to the Planning Commission, the prison, if built, could be expected to employ as many as 450 people. Some 65 percent of those employees, according to federal regulations, would come from Letcher and other counties in southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia.
The average pay for a Bureau of Prisons employee has jumped to about $65,000 annually since the local group first discussed the idea of a prison as a source of new jobs. In addition to the good pay offered, prospective prison employees would have to be 38 years or younger, meaning the families of those who are hired would remain in the area for a number of years. As a result, student populations in local school systems would grow, as would the local economy. Prison workers would eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores, and be treated at local healthcare facilities. For the prison to work, scores of other workers would also have to be be involved — construction workers, electricians, doctors, dentists, doctors, groundskeepers, etc.
If we ever had any reservations about the thought of having to depend on a prison to provide well-paying jobs here, those reservations have been erased after watching the damaging effect the loss of about 200-plus well-paying coal jobs hass done to the local economy over the last few months.
With Letcher County’s jobless rate now standing at about 17 percent, among the worst in the state, we can’t afford to turn our backs on a proposal that could replace many those jobs that have been lost as soon as three years from the date construction of the prison would begin. After all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
While Letcher County should also continue its efforts to pursue the jobs that could come with promoting tourism, those jobs would never be able to replace what we have lost and will continue to lose as our nation continues its transformation from coal to other sources of energy.
It is for these reasons that we urge you to attend the August 13 meeting in the cafeteria of Letcher County Central High School and voice your support for bringing the new federal prison to Letcher County. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m.