A recent article in RealClearPolitics details “The Federal Prison Trump Doesn’t Want,” showcasing a proposed high-security prison in Letcher, Kentucky. Indeed, Congress appropriated over $500 million for this project between 2006 and 2017. Local advocates of the construction claim it is necessary to provide jobs for constituents and to relieve prison crowding. But the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) correctly argues in the White House 2020 budget proposal that research shows prison construction is not associated with significant economic growth in rural areas, and, in fact, could harm long-term growth. The BOP also notes that “Crowding at high-security facilities, in particular, has dropped from 54 percent to just 25 percent,” and this number could drop further as incarceration rates fall with the enactment of FIRST STEP and any future federal reforms, along with persistently declining crime rates.
The half-billion-dollar price tag on this project is an egregious taxpayer expense. In its arguments in the White House budget document, the BOP explains that this prison would cost roughly 38 percent more than the average construction, making it the most expensive prison ever built if constructed. One reason for the exorbitant cost is the topography of the proposed site, which sits on an abandoned coal mine. In fact, due to public health concerns about air pollution from the coal mine, the construction plan is now the subject of a lawsuit.
The appropriated funds are currently unobligated, and the White House 2020 budget proposal seeks to cancel the funds altogether. R Street supports this proposal and would support more immediate action from Congress to rescind or redirect the funds to back-end inmate programming that would help individuals return to society in a condition to succeed. For example, these funds could help the 16,000 federal inmates that currently sit on a waitlist for basic literacy education.
Given that this project would cost taxpayers more than any prison before it during a time of falling incarceration and crime rates, and that it could potentially impose local economic costs far in excess of its benefits, Congress should rescind the funds appropriated for this project or transfer them to a program within the Department of Justice or Bureau of Prisons more in line with the prison reform efforts that have passed across the country.