- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Officials in an eastern Kentucky county vying to become home to a large federal prison are cheering congressional approval of a budget that included more than $400 million for such a facility.

The budget approved Friday does not specify the money must be used to build a prison in Letcher County, the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://bit.ly/1T8vXQy) reported. But local officials say the proposal for a prison in their county is farther along in the review process than others.

Letcher County’s effort also has a powerful ally in U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who heads the House Appropriations Committee.

Rogers worked to include money for a new federal prison in the budget, and the Republican congressman called members of the Letcher County Planning Commission on Friday to let them know about the appropriation.

Rogers told commission members the budget includes $444 million for a new federal prison, said Elwood Cornett, co-chairman of the panel.

The money solidifies the county’s bid, Cornett said.

Cornett and other residents have sought a prison in hopes of boosting the economy of the county, where coal jobs have dropped sharply. Some residents oppose building the prison, but more than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions supporting it

The Bureau of Prisons has not made a final ruling, called a record of decision, on whether it will build a prison in the county. The agency has been studying the potential for years, however, and could make a decision soon.

The work of Cornett and other local supporters has given Letcher County an edge in the search for a prison site, according to Rogers’ office.

“Thanks to the leadership and progress of the Letcher County Planning Commission, Letcher County is well on its way to a record of decision, which will allow a prison to be built in the Roxana community,” Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said Friday.

Smoot said Rogers worked to get money in the budget to “fast-track” construction of a new prison in order to relieve overcrowding at other facilities.

Many medium- and high-security federal prisons have 40 to 50 percent more inmates than they were built to house, she said.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to an inquiry about the appropriation Friday.

Cornett and others began trying more than a decade ago to get the Bureau of Prisons to build in the county, enlisting Rogers’ help to push the agency.

Rogers got $5 million included in the federal budget in 2006 for the bureau to begin the process of finding and evaluating a site for a prison in the county. The agency ultimately picked two potential sites, one at Payne Gap, near Jenkins, and the other at Roxana. Both sites in the mountainous county had been flattened by surface mining.

After doing environmental studies, the bureau chose 700 acres at Roxana as the preferred site. The estimated cost of building the prison and other facilities would be $300 million to $400 million, officials have said.

The prison would house about 1,200 men, most in a high-security facility behind walls and a lethal electrified fence, but some at a minimum-security camp. It would provide an estimated 300 full-time jobs.

There are already four large federal prisons in eastern Kentucky, in Clay, Martin, McCreary and Boyd counties, that house a total of about 6,000 male inmates.

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com

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