Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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This story originally provided by The Ashland Daily Independent


A Costly Prison: Construction project prime case for not building on strip mines

It's unfortunate that the new $200 million United States Penitentiary at Big Sandy has earned the dubious title of "most expensive federal prison ever built."

The price tag - $60 million more than originally bid - conjures up an image of a plush, country club prison where inmates endure their time behind bars with most of the amenities of the outside world.

But the high-security prison off Ky. 3 near Inez will hardly provide inmates with plush quarters when it opens in December. Instead, the 960 inmates who will be housed behind its walls will have some of the toughest restrictions in the federal system, far more than the inmates at the low-security Federal Correctional Institute at Summit.

It is not the prison itself but its location that has made the Big Sandy prison so costly, and that's unfortunate. What was originally hoped to be a positive example of how land leveled by surface mining can be used to promote economic development in Eastern Kentucky has done just the opposite. Other would-be developers will look at the problems encountered during the prison's construction and think long and hard before ever opting to build on old strip-mine sites. So much for the supposed economic advantages of mountaintop removal.

At the time U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th, used the clout that comes with seniority to convince federal prison officials to build the prison on the reclaimed strip mine near the Big Sandy Regional Airport, it seemed like a great deal. After all, the land for the prison had been donated.

However, the problems began soon after ground was broken for the prison on June 30, 1998. Site work - originally projected to cost $2 million - cost more than 20 times that and delayed construction by more than a year. Even after construction began, unstable ground continued to cause problems, including a tower that leaned like the famed one in Pisa, Italy.

However, with the construction problems now a part of the past, the prison will be a huge economic shot in the arm for Martin and surrounding counties. It will employ more than 400. In addition to the inmates living behind the walls, a work camp will house 128 inmates. It began accepting inmates Wednesday.

Unfortunately, many of those good-paying jobs will not go to residents of Martin County. That's because many lack the education level necessary to qualify for them. The same problem has occurred at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty. Despite the hundreds of jobs created by the state prison, Morgan County still has one of the state's highest unemployment rates. The same thing could happen with the new state prison being built near Sandy Hook in Elliott County.

All this points to a major economic development problem in this region - one that can only be solved by the people who live here. To qualify for the good-paying prison jobs coming to their counties, those who live there must raise their overall level of education. Otherwise, the good jobs will go to outsiders. And without an educated workforce, other would-be employers will not locate here.

With 400 employees earning an average of more than $30,000 a year, the new federal prison is going to have a huge impact on the Big Sandy region. Here's hoping most of those working there also will live in the community.


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