It is disturbing that our government officials are pushing to build a Federal Prison in Letcher County under the guise of economic development.
Several years ago a proposal for a Federal prison in Letcher County was turned down by Letcher residents. The idea was revived as the county struggled to recover from a major flood and became more economically vulnerable. These renewed attempts to push the prison project are disrespectful to Letcher County residents who already said no. Pushing people around when they are vulnerable is something bullies do to get their way. I’m disappointed that our elected officials would behave in this manner.
The emphasis on economic development is misleading. Data on the economies of Martin, McCreary, and Clay Counties tells us that those county’s economies are worse, not better, since Federal prisons were installed there. There is nothing to suggest that Letcher County would fare better. As per a 2018 JAMA article, poverty is a leading cause of death in America. Prisons that create more poverty are neither healthy in terms of economics nor the well-being of the people involved with them.
They are not even healthy for those who find employment there. Research shows higher than normal rates of domestic violence, divorce, human rights violations, and addiction in the prison guard population due to PTSD from witnessing traumatic events that occur during a prison guard’s typical day. This collateral damage no doubt adds considerably to health care costs, court costs, and to economic losses as family affairs are disrupted. The claim of economic value appears to be nothing but self-sabotage.
The idea that the proposed prison will create forever jobs in Letcher County is not supported by the experience of other states. In rural NY, similar to rural Eastern KY, many prisons have closed. Some of those prison buildings have sat vacant for many years because their original structure makes them difficult and expensive to renovate. It would make more sense to skip the step that is more problematic and instead to begin working to design a more sustainable project.
If Letcher County citizens cannot benefit from the proposed prison, then who stands to gain?
Our KY State Constitution (Section 25) and Federal 13th Amendment contain an exception clause that permits slavery when someone is convicted of a crime. While most of the world views slavery as a crime against humanity, our justice system capitalizes on that exception clause by requiring labor for little or no pay and with no recourse for abusive or poor working conditions. For example, in Federal prisons, inmates are paid $0.12 cents to $0.40 cents per hour, which is not nearly enough to cover basic hygiene supplies, phone calls, and emails to loved ones. These conditions meet the definition of slavery.
Kentucky already incarcerates 40% more people per capita than the national average and Eastern KY is known across the nation as “the nation’s jailer.” Is this an identity KY citizens want to foster? Surely we can claim more positive attributes as identity markers!
Ethical, moral, health, economic, and social concerns demand that we abandon the Federal prison proposal and find a more viable and appropriate way to support Letcher County.