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

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