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U.S. government to withdraw action needed to build prison at Roxana

The Trump administration is withdrawing the Record of Decision to place a prison in Letcher County, halting — at least for the foreseeable future — the project, which has been in the works for nearly 15 years.

The federal Department of Justice plans on Friday to issue a public notice of the withdrawal of the Record of Decision to purchase about 800 acres of land at Roxana to build a prison, citing new information that could impact environmental assessment of the prison site.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers says the process is continuing, despite the withdrawal of the Record of Decision.

“The Letcher County Planning Commission and I have worked diligently for nearly 15 years to see this prison come to fruition, and I share the local frustration for this unexpected delay,” Rogers said in a prepared statement. “BOP leadership has assured me that the Bureau will continue to defend the ongoing litigation and that internal processes related to the Letcher prison construction project continue to move forward. Meanwhile, $510 million remains available for construction, as the House Appropriations Committee has again rejected the administration’s proposed rescission.”

The litigation to which Rogers was referring was filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh, Penn., based public-interest law firm, on behalf of several federal prisoners who claim they should have been notified of the environmental assessment for the site. That suit was filed in November 2018, but has been delayed repeatedly due to requests by the plaintiffs to allow lawyers who are not licensed in the District of Columbia to argue the case there, and requests for more time to file documents.

The latest request for an extension of time was filed in late May.

Elwood Cornett, co-chair of the Planning Commission, which began the attempt to get the government to build a prison here at the suggestion of Rogers, said, “I think we’ll just see what Hal (Rogers) can do. I don’t know what else to do.”

The Trump administration has twice before attempted to pull back $510 million already appropriated for the prison, and has twice been rebuffed by Congress. Both times, the administration said the prison is not needed because of a reduction in the number of prisoners.

In June 2017, Rep. Rogers took Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to task over the proposed cut during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the Department of Justice budget proposal. Rogers said there was 30 percent overcrowding of prisons systemwide, and 52 percent overcrowding in highsecurity prisons, but still the budget request specifically sought to remove the money Congress had already appropriated for a prison here.

“What I want to know is, are you serious?” Rogers asked.

Rosenstein said the department had to make tough budget choices, and said prisoner population was down 14 percent.

“General, the Congress decided this and it’s the Congress that controls the purse strings of the country. It’s been passed. It’s the law. The money is there — appropriated, authorized, everything in order,” Rogers said at the time. “We recognize there is a problem. We’ve got terrific overcrowding. Yes, we’ve made some reductions in recent years, but not enough. This has been decided and we expect it to be carried out.”

On Tuesday, Isaac Gaston, site selection specialist for the Bureau of Prisons, which falls under the Department of Justice, demanded that a story about the withdrawal not be run in the newspaper before the federal government can issue the public notice, saying publication would be “illegal.”

When the newspaper refused to hold the story, Gaston refused to answer questions about the decision.

“You’re not cooperating with me, I don’t have anything to say to you,” Gaston said.

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