The Federal Prison Trump Doesn't Want -- and Ky. Does

The Federal Prison Trump Doesn't Want -- and Ky. Does
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The Federal Prison Trump Doesn't Want -- and Ky. Does
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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President Trump signed historic criminal justice reform into law last year, a move to improve prison conditions, shorten unnecessarily long -- and often unfair -- sentences, and begin the long process of ending mass incarceration. And now, with fewer convicts headed behind bars in the future, the president wants fewer federal prisons.

Specifically, sources with direct knowledge of Trump’s 2020 budget request tell RealClearPolitics that he will call on Congress to rescind funding for a high-security prison in Eastern Kentucky.

Estimated savings: $510 million.

The penitentiary in question is slated for construction in little Letcher County, not far from the Kentucky-Virginia border in the Appalachian Mountains. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it would be built on roughly 700 acres of ground flattened by decades of strip mining, house as many as 1,200 inmates, and create around 300 jobs.

Also according to the prisons bureau: A new lockup isn’t needed. Two years ago, that agency asked Congress for a “rescission in unobligated New Construction balances.”

Administration officials point to that fact as well as larger trends to make their case. First, the number of federal prisoners is declining; according to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the U.S. incarceration rate in 2016 fell to its lowest level in 20 years. Second, projections forecast fewer prisoners in the future; according to the Congressional Budget Office, the recently passed criminal justice reform is expected to reduce the prison population by 53,000 person-years over 10 years.

This isn’t the first time Trump has tried to axe the prison. And this won’t be the first time his administration finds itself tangling with Rep. Hal Rogers either. The Kentucky Republican (pictured) has pushed for the Letcher County lockup since 2005. And he knows how to get a federal prison built in his district. He already has three.

Dubbed the “prince of pork,” Rogers has brought millions of federal dollars back to his district to build two high-security prisons, one in McCreary County and another in Martin County. A third, a minimum-security prison camp in nearby Clay County, is accessible via a scenic parkway that bears the congressman’s name.

Rogers, who did not respond to RCP requests for comment, seems hell-bent on getting a fourth. When he first learned of the administration’s 2017 request to defund the latest project, the livid appropriator dressed down Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and pointedly asked, “Are you serious?”

The decision, Rosenstein replied, was based on the recommendation of the BOP. There is another prison in Illinois, he told the House Appropriations Committee, “that has already been built” and that could be opened to as many 2,500 inmates for “$80 million” -- $430 million less than the Letcher County iteration.

Stopping construction isn’t as easy as answering questions in committee, though. Rural communities have been building prisons to create jobs lost through declining industries. According to analysis by Tracy Huling of the Prison Policy Initiative, 245 prisons were built between 1990 and 1999 alone, with a new lockup opening almost every 15 days.

Rogers plans on continuing that trend. Another prison, he has promised, would be “a long-term economic shot in the arm.” It is a tempting argument in the coal towns of Letcher County, where just 94 people still work in the mining industry, a drop from nearly 1,500 less than two decades ago.

Administration officials don’t see prisons as an economic cure-all, however, and cite academic studies to show the opposite. In 2007, Penn State University researchers found that prisons “had no significant economic effect on rural places in general.” A 2004 Iowa State University study found that rural communities with prisons experienced higher poverty and lower household wages than similar places without a prison.

This data has persuaded Judah Schept, an associate professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, that the pro-prison argument is “dubious if not outright disingenuous.”

“The places, according to national level data, where prisons actually negatively impact the communities in which they’re built are the rural communities that are already hardest hit, that are already distressed,” Schept told RCP. “That is all of Central Appalachia, all of Eastern Kentucky.”

For more proof, he points to the three counties in Rogers’ district that have acquired federal prisons. Each has a median income well below the national average. All regularly rank as some of the poorest counties in Kentucky and in the entire country, despite an influx of millions of dollars to pay for their prisons.

While it will be difficult for the Trump administration to claw back funding that Congress has appropriated for the planned facility, advocates for criminal justice reform met the plans optimistically, if somewhat cautiously.

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the justice program of the liberal Brennan Center, told RCP that if administration calls to end construction of the facility are intended to honor new obligations “to keep [prisoners] closer to home, then that is interesting and worth waiting to see what happens.”

Jonathan Haggerty, who manages criminal justice issues at the conservative R Street Institute, was more direct, calling the Kentucky project “an unambiguous waste of resources.”

“It stinks of pork. It is a waste of time and totally counter to the spirit of reform that the administration has spearheaded,” Haggerty told RCP. “I think they’ve done the smart thing, the right thing, the wise thing by opposing it so far.”

The odds, however, are very much against the administration. With funds already appropriated by Congress, Rogers stands ready to defend them from his post on the Appropriations Committee. And Trump probably can’t count on much help from the Republicans who make up the Kentucky Senate delegation. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul have stayed on the sidelines so far. Neither responded to requests for comment from RCP.

All the same, the issue provides the White House with an opportunity to advance on two fronts. “Closing” a prison before it is built would not only save taxpayer dollars, it would play a part in fulfilling the president’s vision of criminal justice reform.



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