The federal government’s decision to build a new high-security prison in Letcher County will not change despite recent protests against the plan, the office of U.S. Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers says.
“The prison is needed and it will be built,” Nick Camil, a field representative for Rogers, said during the June meeting of the Letcher County Planning Commission.
Camil was responding to concerns by planning commission members that a recent public protest directed at Rogers could cause the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to change its mind about building the new prison at Roxana.
“As far as we’re concerned it’s America — you’re free to disagree,” Camil said of a small group of silent protesters who held up banners opposing the prison as Rogers addressed a June 6 Shaping Our Appalachian
Region (SOAR) summit in Pikeville. “We will continue to make progress and continue to work on this project with the Bureau of Prisons.”
The protesters, who have orga- nized under the name Letcher Governance Project, say their mission is to convince Rogers to consider other “solutions to eastern Kentucky’s economy than an additional federal prison.”
Governance Project members Eric King and Ada Smith said in a new release that “the campaign aims to demonstrate there are better economic solutions for the region than prisons,” adding that the $444 million already allocated to the project “would go a long way towards implementing those solutions.”
However, Camil pointed out to Planning Commission members that Congress approved the $444 million in budget bill and that President Obama signed it into law for the sole purpose of building a new high-security federal prison. Therefore, said Camil, the funds cannot be allocated for any other use.
Planning Commission Chairman Elwood Cornett used last week’s open meeting to take issue with what he believes have been unfair portrayals of the commission members, all of whom are volunteers, and their 13- year effort to bring the new federal prison to Letcher County.
Cornett especially took exception to a column in a statewide newspaper that described him and other commission members as “powerful elders” whose “low self-esteem” has caused them to support building a prison here.
“It is silly,” said Cornett, an Old Regular Baptist preacher.
Cornett also took issue with claims by some Governance Project members that Planning Commission members hope to profit from the prison buy building houses and apartments to house support employees who would have to move to Letcher County.
“They’re trying to make us look like we’re less than honest people and self-serving people,” Cornett said.
Letcher County School Supt. Tony Sergent, who has served on the Planning Commission for a number of years, said he wouldn’t have a problem with people voicing their displeasure with the prison if they hadn’t resorted to personal attacks while doing so.
“They can disagree, but to question your motives when you’re doing it for the good of Letcher County so that people can have jobs?” said Sergent. “That hurts a little, especially with the effort I know that you’ve put in.”
Supporters of the prison say it will bring stable and recession-proof jobs to the county with federal benefits.
Cornett pointed out that the Bureau of Prisons began its search for a new prison site to relieve the 50-percent overcrowding in the nation’s high-security prisons, not to provide jobs to Letcher County residents.
“Our people have as much right to do some of that work as anyone else,” said Cornett.
Camil said those now protesting the prison had plenty of chances to voice their objections over the 13 years the Planning Commission has been at work on the project, particularly at three public forums held by the Bureau of Prisons. Camil also noted that all Planning Commission meetings have been open to the public.
“People had their chance to speak,” he said. “The project moves on.”
Cornett said he doesn’t want to be “enemies” with Governance Project members, “but if this is where they are I don’t want to be on their side.”