By Rachel Pressley
In April 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice withdrew their funding request for a $444 million prison on a former mountaintop removal coal mining site in Roxana, Ky.
The DOJ cited a declining prison population over the past few years and asked that the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a subdivision of the DOJ, expand capacity at existing facilities instead.
In President Trump’s proposed budget, the Bureau of Prisons would direct $80 million toward retrofitting and expanding the capacity of a federal prison in western Illinois to move prisoners there instead of constructing the new facility in Letcher County, Ky.
Among the concerns expressed by opponents of the Roxana proposal was the prison’s potential impact on Lilly Cornett Woods, an old-growth forest located one mile from the proposed site.
“Not a lot of people get to say that they have an old-growth forest a few miles from where they live,” said Tarence Ray, a resident involved with the Letcher Governance Project and a former Appalachian Voices employee. “It’s not something that we want to endanger. Road traffic noise, air pollution, light pollution and water pollution will have major impacts on that ecosystem.”
The Prison Ecology Project, an organization that argues against the prison industry’s history of water pollution and ecological degradation, and the Letcher Governance Project, a group of local residents that are rejecting the prison as a form of economic development, have been working with others across the country to fight against mass incarceration and the prison industry.
Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents the area in the U.S. House, claims that the prison would be helpful with employment since local residents are dealing with a lack of coal jobs.
“It’s hard to be excited about the DOJ’s decision because it’s not a win, yet,” said Ray. “We’re still incarcerating more people in this country than any other country, and we can’t get Hal Rogers, our own U.S. representative, to listen. There is still potential for him to fight this in Congress.”