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Rep. Rogers says he wants update on prison status

The new presidential budget request is out, and while it differs in many ways from the previous four presidential budgets, some things didn’t change from when Donald Trump was in the White House.

With Joe Biden now in the Oval Office, The White House still says new prisons are not needed. And like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration wants the money appropriated for a federal prison here taken back and used for other priorities. And like he has said for the past four years, U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, who earmarked $510 million for the project when Barack Obama was president, still says the money for the prison stays where it is.

The subject of a prison at Roxana was first broached in 2006, and in 2016, Rogers succeeded in getting $440 million put into the budget. Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was appointed by Obama, said the prison was needed and would help alleviate overcrowding in the prison system.

But the next year, while the Bureau of Prisons issued a Record of Decision to build the prison, Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions backtracked and said the prison was not needed. Trump then began trying to claw back the money Rogers had managed to get appropriated. Rogers dug in his heels and refused, persuading his fellow members of Congress not to go along with Trump’s request.

After that, every budget the Trump administration prepared requested that the money be taken back, and every year Congress said no. Finally, in 2019, the Department of Justice settled a lawsuit that attempted to block the prison by withdrawing the Record of Decision that had approved construction at the proposed site at Roxana. The budget request submitted by Trump the following year included the following statement, citing the delays caused by the settlement it approved: “The budget eliminates wasteful spending, including $510 million reserved for the construction of a new prison that is unneeded due to the declining prison population, significantly delayed due to the site selected, and very costly to taxpayers.”

Now that Biden is president, he has requested the money be removed from the budget as well. This time the request is more opaque but says the same thing — that prison populations are down, and there is no need to spend money building new penitentiaries.

Under the heading “New Construction,” the latest budget request says: “This activity includes the costs associated with land and building acquisition, new prison construction, and land payments for the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, which serves as a Bureau-wide transfer and processing center. For 2022, the Budget requests $2.0 million for new construction base program funding and proposes a cancellation of $535 million in prior year unobligated new construction balances.”

The Trump administration wanted to use the money intended for the Letcher County prison for immigration enforcement. The Biden request does not appear to transfer the money anywhere in one lump sum. However, with a budget of more than 1,300 pages, it is difficult to be sure, and the Office of Management and Budget did not reply to messages asking for clarification of the budget request. The Bureau of Prisons told The Mountain Eagle late Tuesday that it was still attempting to find an answer to the question.

Biden’s budget request for the Bureau of Prisons includes a total of $178.9 million for buildings and facilities, including modernization and repair of existing prisons and new construction, and estimates that over $900 million in unobligated revenue will be leftover at the end of this year from the last Trump budget for the federal prison system.

Rogers, however, says the money appropriated for the prison here has already been budgeted by Congress, and it will be spent the way Congress intended.

“The Congressionallysecured funding for the proposed prison in Letcher County is still in place. President Biden proposed the same rescission as previous administrations, but the cancellation in his budget proposal does not carry any force of law,” Rogers said this week. “Although the process has been long and thorough to meet environmental standards and legal procedures, I remain committed to the prison construction project, and I have requested an update from the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons regarding next steps for the facility.”

(While Rogers refers to “previous administrations,” the money wasn’t appropriated at all until the last annual budget under the Obama administration.)

The last information from the Bureau of Prisons, a statement put out last fall, says it is reexamining the environmental impact statement on the prison site at Roxana, and will make a decision about whether to proceed at a later date. Nothing on the prison has been published in the Federal Register since the notice of that the Record of Decision would be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, engineers working for the Letcher County Water and Sewer District continue to say money for water and sewer lines necessary for construction of a prison will still be available from the Bureau.

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