by H.B. Elkins, Columnist
Beattyville, my hometown, was rocked a few weeks ago by the news that Lee Adjustment Center would be closing at the end of June.
The private prison, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, is one of the largest private employers in the area. After CCA lost a contract renewal bid to house prisoners from Vermont, it was announced that facility would close its doors. As a result, a community that’s already suffering from a long list of economic and social problems takes another blow.
It didn’t have to be this way, but governmental decisions played a big role in LAC’s fate.
LAC opened around 1990, built by United States Correctional Corporation on land that was originally slated to be an industrial park, and housed prisoners from Kentucky. USCC was purchased by CCA around 1998, and CCA operated the prison since then. There were two other private prisons in Kentucky, both since closed, opened by USCC and bought by CCA. About the same time that LAC opened, the state opened the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty. Still, there were enough Kentucky convicts to accommodate the state’s penal institutions and the private prisons.
(In the interest of transparency, I need to make a couple of disclosures. Relatives on my mother’s side of the family owned an interest in some of the property originally purchased for the industrial park in the early 1980s, and some of the proceeds from that sale made their way to me when my maternal grandmother died in 1987 and a cousin died in 2000. In addition, I originally opposed the siting of a prison on the property because the facility originally was a medium security lockup with no perimeter fence. I was worried that an escapee might make his way to my paternal grandmother’s home, just a couple of miles away, and break in and harm her. Although there were a few walkaways before a fence was built, thankfully none ever posed a threat to my grandmother.)
A couple of things happened after Kentucky began using the private prisons. In the early 2000s, the state built Little Sandy Correctional Complex near Sandy Hook in Elliott County, only about 25 miles north of EKCC in West Liberty. Construction costs are not readily available, but for comparison purposes, it cost more than $72 million to build EKCC about 15 years earlier. The state opened Little Sandy in 2005 despite the presence of two private prisons within the Commonwealth’s borders.
Elliott County is the home of powerful Democrat Rocky Adkins, who currently serves as the majority floor leader in the Kentucky House of Representatives. (Again, in the interests of transparency, I went to college with Adkins and considered him an acquaintance). Is it a coincidence that the state built a new prison in his home county, despite private prison beds being available? It’s doubtful, especially given this state’s political history and which party dominates state government. The new prison added more than 200 people to the state’s payroll – further straining the troubled state pension system, it should be noted – while housing more than 1,000 prisoners, some of whom could have been lodged at LAC.
The second thing that happened was that number of new county or regional jails and detention centers were built after LAC opened. Many of these were built with more capacity than necessary so the local governments could make money housing state prisoners. This, too, siphoned away prisoners who could have been held at LAC.
This glut of prison beds didn’t portend good things for LAC and CCA’s other two prisons. The Otter Creek facility in Floyd County, which had housed female prisoners, had been a source of problems for years, so the state pulled its female convicts from that facility and moved them elsewhere. And in 2010, the state cancelled its contract with CCA and removed all Kentucky prisoners from LAC and the Marion Adjustment Center, near Lebanon in central Kentucky.
LAC responded by taking prisoners from other states, most notably Vermont. There were efforts to bring in prisoners from elsewhere, most notably West Virginia, but that plan died when it was discovered that the constitution of our neighbor to the east forbids shipping prisoners out of state to serve their sentences. CCA also attempted to win a contract to house federal prisoners a couple of years ago, but that effort fell through.
So when CCA got underbid by another private prison earlier this year for the Vermont contract, the facility announced its closure. Some have been quick to blame local officials for not doing more to save the jobs, but in reality there was little they could do. This was a business decision between the state government of Vermont and a private company headquartered in Tennessee. If any blame can be assigned for LAC’s closure, much of it should go to the Commonwealth of Kentucky for building new state-owned prisons when adequate private facilities already existed.
So, what now for LAC? Its former employees will be searching for jobs in an already depressed market. Many will go on unemployment and quite possibly will have to sign up for other government benefits.
There’s one possible solution, if only government will get out of the way. A new federal prison has been proposed for Letcher County, but it’s running into some opposition, most notably environmental and permitting concerns. Instead of spending millions of dollars to build a new facility, and jumping through the hurdles required to install infrastructure, it makes sense for the federal government to buy LAC from CCA and use it for the new federal prison, right? After all, the facility is already there, it has the necessary utilities, there’s a trained workforce in place and the purchase price would probably be far less than the cost of building a new prison.
But once again, it looks as if logic and government are mutually exclusive. When I posed this possibility a few weeks ago, a representative from Congressman Hal Rogers’ office said she wasn’t sure if that was allowable under federal Bureau of Prisons policy.
If it’s not, it should be. Government decisions are what sealed LAC’s fate. It’s time for the government to get out of its own way and foster economic development in impoverished areas, not impede it. Kentucky’s decision to build a state prison in Elliott County as a bit of political payback essentially made it impossible for LAC to continue to operate. If there are bureaucratic obstacles to the federal government buying LAC, the feds need to eliminate them.
I wish the best for the LAC employees who now face the uncertainty of unemployment and a job search in a difficult region. And I wish the government would do as much to help those folks as it’s done to cause their plight.
H.B. Elkins is an award-winning former editor of the Citizen Voice & Times who now works in public relations. All opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of his current or any former employer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at kentuckyvalleyviews.blogspot.com.