Prisons won’t fuel innovation economy in eastern Kentucky

June 6 is the first Innovation Summit hosted by SOAR [Shaping Our Appalachian Region]. It’s a milestone for eastern Kentucky to have a state and federal platform that is focused on creative avenues for economic growth. In fact, innovation is the bedrock to our country’s 21st century economy and frankly eastern Kentucky has a lot to prove if we are to compete.

Support from the federal government has gone a long way in helping our region contribute to this country’s innovation boom. Unfortunately, that money has been slow in coming, or is being wasted on other things. For example, Congress, with the help of Congressman Hal Rogers, recently allocated $444 million to Letcher County – but the money won’t be spent on innovation or community-driven solutions. It will be spent on bringing a federal prison here.

This will be the fourth prison that Congressman Rogers has worked to bring to the region. The previous three facilities were placed in the economically distressed counties of McCreary, Martin, and Clay, and they’ve done very little to help local economies. McCreary County remains the 11th poorest county in the nation, and Martin and Clay aren’t far behind. Everything we have seen in those counties backs up recent comments made by Governor Matt Bevin about a prison coming to his hometown: “The quality of life began to go down … and the number of people who really had roots in the community began to change.”

Local officials have done all they can to convince the public that this is a done deal, that nothing we say or do can change the outcome. Meanwhile, they have shied away from promises they made early on in the campaign to bring the prison here. In a recent announcement at the Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg, Rogers is on record as saying that the Bureau of Prisons "will bring in most of the people to run the prison until it gets settled in and up and running."

Right now, our people understand things in terms of closing. The mines are closed. The schools are closed or consolidated. An HIV and drug epidemic rages throughout our counties – drug rehabilitation clinics haven’t been opened or proposed like they have been in West Virginia. We don’t have time to let things get “settled in and up and running.”

As SOAR states: “Throughout the region, everyday people like you have come up with solutions to problems.” Eastern Kentucky has historic and pressing issues that demand new ideas. We need community-driven solutions that foster healing, innovation and creativity. Prisons have not and will not help us realize those solutions. Federal initiatives such as the White House’s Power Plus Plan and the new AML [Abandoned Mine Lands] program receive only a fraction of public investment compared to the proposed U.S. penitentiary.

My questions to you: What if your ideas for a 21st century Kentucky had $444 million of investment? What would #our444million look like? Please share what you would invest in with $444. Use the hastag #our444million.

The above also ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sunday, June 5.

Issue Area(s):