The Trump administration’s 2020 budget request calls for taking away a half a billion dollars appropriated but still unused to build a federal prison in Letcher County.
Congress appropriated $444 million for the prison here in 2016, and the Trump administration began trying to kill the project in 2017. The Record of Decision for a site was completed more than a year ago, but so far no property has been purchased.
The administration is citing falling prison populations and repurposing money to private prisons as a reason to cut new construction. The total to be pulled out of the budget, if approved, is $505 million, according to the budget request from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-KY), who has pushed for construction of the prison, continues to tell supporters that there is nothing to worry about, and the prison is on track. Danielle Smoot, communication director for Rogers, said Rogers has requested quarterly updates from the Bureau of Prisons to maintain regular progress on prison construction in Letcher County.
“Currently, the BOP is working on the lengthy process of property acquisition. Land acquisitions are anticipated to be finalized by the end of the year, and, once completed, work towards obtaining a designbuild contract can begin,” Smoot said via email. “BOP indicated the process will remain uninterrupted during consideration of the President’s FY20 budget request.”
A land purchaser for the bureau is expected to be in Letcher County in about two weeks to meet with one landowner, however Elwood Cornett, who leads the Letcher County Planning Commission, said that meeting is to talk to the owner about reducing the amount of property the bureau wants to buy. Original plans had been for the bureau to buy all of that owner’s land.
Cornett said that since appropriation measures must begin in the House of Representatives, the President’s request “doesn’t mean much.”
“I do think the thing is still a go. I’m not particularly worried about it,” he said. “I’m just aggravated that it’s taking so long.”
The Record of Decision, a finding by the bureau that the site was appropriate and that construction could move ahead, was approved in early April 2018. Since then, some preliminary design work has been done on water and sewer systems for the area, but there has been no construction, and no deeds have been registered in the Letcher County Courthouse for the property where the prison is to be built.
The Trump administration has tried to remove the money from the BOP budget in 2018 and 2019, and the 2020 request moves the new construction budget to zero.
Real Clear Politics reported in March that sources close to the budget process had said Trump planned to take back money for the prison, which President Obama signed into law in 2016.
After passage of a prison reform law signed by President Trump in 2018, critics of the prison here said it was no longer needed, however just before that law was signed, the Bureau of Prisons said even though prison population numbers were falling, the age and poor conditions of prisons required consideration of new facilities.
According to the BOP’s own 2019 Performance Budget to Congress, 30 percent of its facilities are more than 50 years old, and 43 percent are more than 30 years old. Because they are in use 24 hours a day, the Bureau of Prisons notes that there is more wear and tear on facilities, and that creates safety and security problems.
“The biggest challenge the BOP faces is managing and providing for the care of the federal inmate population while maintaining the appropriately safe and secure prisons required to ensure the safety of inmates, BOP staff, and surrounding communities,” a bureau performance report says. “The BOP is most concerned with reducing crowding in high security institutions, effectively managing federal inmates, and tending to deteriorating infrastructures.”
The number of inmates in the system peaked in 2013, with 220,000 inmates, and was at 184,000 in December 2017. The 2019 prison population, according to the BOP, is 180,634, about 11,000 less than the estimate in the performance budget. The BOP performance budget, written last year, says that because of the types of crimes committed, some prisons were still overcrowded.
“The size of the BOP inmate population exceeds the rated capacity of its prisons by 14 to 24 percent on average, depending on the security level (as of December 28, 2017). Rated capacity is the baseline used to calculate prison crowding, and assists in managing the BOP’s inmate population to distribute the population throughout the system efficiently and equitably,” the report says.
Prison space is rated by the number of prisoners who share a cell. Only 50 percent of medium security prisoners may be double bunked, and while 25 percent may be double bunked in high security prisons. In reality, 89 percent are double bunked in medium security facilities, and 71 percent are double bunked in high security prisons.