The Trump Administration released on Monday details of a 2020 federal budget proposal that includes cutting funds allotted for a new federal prison in eastern Kentucky. The funds would be redirected to other law-enforcement or natural security priorities, potentially including a wall at the southern U.S. border.
The proposed cut rebukes arguments made by Congressman Hal Rogers, the powerful Kentucky Republican who has promoted federal prisons as economic development for communities struggling with high unemployment.
Rogers sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In a written statement to the Ohio Valley ReSource, Rogers called the Trump administration’s reduction in funding a “gimmick.”
“The bottom line is that the Letcher County Prison remains on track for completion and I plan to continue advocating for it, along with other critical programs and agencies that have been proposed for reduction or elimination,” Rogers said in the statement.
The $510-million facility has faced serious opposition from local and national activists who say the prison is not necessary and would not bring significant economic benefits to the struggling region.
“Prisons don’t bring the kind of economic development that Hal Rogers and others suggest that they will,” said Judah Schept, a professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University and one of the prison project’s vocal critics. “The necessary and just transition that Appalachia needs and deserves won’t come from building prisons.”
The administration’s budget proposal echoes many of the activists’ arguments, saying the prison is costly compared to other facilities. It also points out that Rogers’ claims that prisons bring economic development are not founded in fact. “Prison construction largely does not provide economic growth in rural counties, and in fact, may impede it,” the proposal said.
The arguments in the budget proposal may bolster a lawsuit filed on behalf of federal prisoners against the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the agency was pursuing the project “without a reasonable and legal justification.”
“Federal legislation indicates a downward trend in prison population,” said Emily Posner, an attorney in the suit, in a 2018 press release. “My clients are in agreement with local residents who feel that there are much better ways to generate federal support in Appalachian communities than wasting hundreds of millions on an unnecessary prison.”
The 2020 budget proposal also includes sharp cuts to education, housing and urban development, and international spending.
The cut to USP Letcher’s funding will likely face opposition in the Congress, which controls federal spending levels.