Hal Rogers’s plan to get his prison no matter what Skip to content

Hal Rogers’s plan to get his prison no matter what

Kentucky congressman who wants a prison tries to do a Manchin: Use an appropriations bill to override the other branches

2 min read
Photo by Emiliano Bar / Unsplash

Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky’s 5th District, the longest-serving member of the House, a member of the Appropriations Committee and its former chair, has wanted the federal government to build a maximum-security prison in Letcher County since 2006. The county is divided about the idea, and the Bureau of Prisons has soured on it.

So Rogers put language in the his latest appropriations bill that would require the Justice Department to issue an environmental impact statement and final decision approving the prison within 30 days of the bill becoming law, and says the agencies’ decisions “shall not be subject to judicial review.”

Rogers is following a tactic employed by another longtime Appalachian politician, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who bargained for and won a provision in the latest major funding bill to clear the administrative and judicial barriers to the Mountain Valley Pipeline in his state and Virginia. But Rogers’s gambit faces many more obstacles.

His bill for spending by the Justice Department and other agencies “will need to clear several hurdles before it could become law,” Jamie Lucke reports for the Kentucky Lantern. “The House’s spending bills are likely to change significantly later this year,” when its bill and the Senate’s must be reconciled. “The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 28-1 earlier this month to approve its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, which does not include any provision mentioning the Letcher prison.”

Rogers “touts the prison as a source of employment and economic development in a poor region that has lost thousands of coal-industry jobs. The 16-member Letcher County Planning Commission has long sought a prison,” Lucke reports. “A coalition of opponents — local and national — question the potential economic benefits. They say a proliferation of prisons in Central Appalachia in recent decades has done little to improve the economy, while supporting mass incarceration and putting prisoners and their families at great distances from each other.”

Two citizens’ groups said this week that more public input is needed. “People in Letcher County deserve to have a say in this because we vote, we pay taxes, we live here and we love this place,” said Dr. Artie Anne Bates, a member of Concerned Letcher Countians. “We don’t want Rep. Rogers stuffing something down our throats that we are not in agreement with.” Rogers' office has not replied to the Lantern’s or The Rural Blog’s requests for comment.

The Bureau of Prisons approved construction of the prison in 2018, but in 2020 “the Trump administration pulled the plug, saying the prison was no longer needed because of a decline in prisoner numbers and that the $505 million set aside for the project would be ‘wasteful spending,’” Lucke notes. Recently, the Bureau of Prisons changed its plan to a medium-security facility, but “President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal also would cancel funding for the prison.”


Cross-posted from The Rural Blog.

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Al Cross

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky. He served as a political reporter and commentator at the Courier-Journal for 26 years.