As chaos and criminality plague the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the highest levels of management, only a politician could come up with the idea of building the fourth federal prison in a remote area in eastern Kentucky. Let us not forget that the federal prison population has decreased by over 60, 000 people from the historic highs in 2013. In addition, the agency is also having problems in the retention and hiring of eligible staff especially in rural areas despite offering attractive incentive bonuses funded by taxpayers. While these obvious reasons are blatant examples of poor judgment, there are more subtle ones that exist that should have every voter and even the purported community beneficiaries rallying in opposition to this false panacea.
Flying under the radar of false promises is the fallacy that prisons are a boon to the local economy and job creation. There is a myriad of academic research on this issue, as well as anecdotal evidence that debunk these falsehoods. Clayton Mosher has authored some informative articles on the community impact of prisons in Prison Legal News and The Marshal Project’s Christie Thompson has specifically covered the Letcher County proposal. There is a stronger argument to be made that communities are harmed due to greater demands on social and municipal infrastructure, environmental damage and decreased real estate values. There is also the stigma of being a “prison town” that some argue hampers economic development due to the hesitancy for businesses to relocate nearby. Perhaps the most false and egregious claim made for prison construction is regarding the local job creation myth.
While a few jobs vacancies are filled locally, they are the jobs at the lowest of the federal prison pay scale plus most local applicants will not even qualify for positions given the maximum age limitation (age 37), the requirement for prior law enforcement experience and even preconditions for good credit, physical fitness and a negative urinalysis for controlled substances including marijuana. Lower, middle and upper-level management will all be moved from other locations at the taxpayers’ expense, and most will not even reside in the immediate area. I am sure the average taxpayer does not realize executives transferring to the prison get a weeklong expense paid vacation called a “House Hunting Trip” in advance of the move while the government relocation company is required to buy the house they were living in prior to the move. The construction jobs will most likely be awarded to large government contractors outside the state as well.
From a humanity perspective, the incarcerated will fill the population from other federal facilities far from their families and community support structure. The area itself does not even have a bus terminal for the families in some cases, that will need to travel over one thousand miles round trip to visit their loved ones. From a civil rights perspective, the BOP has no business expanding the prison infrastructure when recent scrutiny by Covid-19 related litigation has overwhelming determined their inability to provide adequate medical care to prisoners and the agency continues to obstruct the implementation of the First Step Act implementation.
I have an outside the box suggestion for Congressman Hal Rogers that can help his popularity without harming his community. Mr. Rogers can sponsor a House bill complimentary to the recent bi-partisan legislation introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee members which would create a Federal Prison Ombudsman and expand federal prison oversight. His support of such a bill would not only impact the four prison communities in his district, but it would impact families and the broader justice community around the country by enabling greater transparency and accountability so lacking in our nation’s federal prison system.
The DOJ needs to take a step back and exercise circumspection before we expand an agency with a drastically decreasing population and dysfunctional management at every level. The tone deafness of this decision disrespects taxpayers and helps perpetuate our country’s reputation as “The Incarceration Nation”!
Jack Donson is an expert on federal prison policy. He retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and has worked directly with the incarcerated for over thirty-six years. He is a prison reformer, advocate and consultant who testifies around the country and trains justice professionals on federal prison issues.