At last week’s SOAR Summit in Pikeville, a silent protest was held during Hal Rogers’ address by a group called The Letcher Governance Project. The purpose of the demonstration was to make Congressman Rogers, as well as others in attendance, aware of the fact that there are citizens in Southeastern Kentucky, who believe the $444 million the federal government has allocated to potentially build a new prison in Letcher County could be put to much better use by funding projects that the SOAR initiative, which Congressman Rogers helped launch, has promoted as possible means of economic stimulation in Appalachia.
The discussion over the proposed prison in Letcher County has spread throughout the coalfields. Each community under the SOAR umbrella, including Hazard, has joined in the debate. In fact, The Letcher Governance Project has close ties to Perry County, considering the fact that one of the group’s members, Sara Estep, is a former citizen of Hazard.
According to The Letcher County Governance Facebook profile, The LGP is made up of local citizens, and rejects a prison as the best form of economic development for Southeastern Kentucky. The LGP says studies have shown that prisons do not create the amount of jobs or economic benefits that officials often tout. LGP also claims the planning process for the proposed United States Penitentiary Letcher County (USP Letcher) has largely been done by wealthy and powerful people in the county, without the input of local landowners and citizens.
“We didn’t want to do anything that could be misinterpreted,” Sara Estep said, in reference to the LGP protest last week at SOAR, “Obviously, it was a protest. We were there trying to send a message. But we wanted it to be a message of, we are young professionals and we want to have a voice in this.”
The demonstration was actually what is called “a silent protest.” The participants held signs with messages in support of their cause, but they did not try to override the presenters by voicing their opinions during the speeches given on stage. The idea was simply to make Rogers aware of the opposition to the prison and hopefully be given an opportunity in the future to participate in the conversation.
Rogers continues to pinpoint the new prison as part of the economic rebuilding process for the area. In an edition of Issues and Answers on WYMT following the SOAR Summit, Rep. Rogers and Gov. Bevin spoke about the impact of SOAR. Both leaders addressed the silent protest directly.
“It will mean several hundred jobs; good pay and good benefits. And it’s totally safe,” Rogers said of the prison, “We can take them to McCreary County and let them talk to the people who work there that are now living at home; keeping their families at home. Between all of these 4 prisons (the four in the SOAR region), we will have nearly 1,500 families staying at home.”
“These are prisoners that are going to be housed somewhere,” Bevin said, “I appreciate people who care enough about an issue to be for it or against it with passion. I respect people who are willing to come out and cast a counterpoint. But I’m not sure that I really saw the counterpoint. I saw what they were against, but what are they for? It’s easy to throw stones, but what are the solutions?”
The quotes by Rogers and Bevin were taken from Issues and Answers, which aired on, and was produced by, WYMT Television in Hazard.
Folks on the other side of the debate, those who support building the new prison, agree with Rogers and highlight jobs as the determining factor behind their opinions. Rogers claims that nearly 300 new jobs will be created by the prison. Estep says the new jobs the prison creates will be much less and they will not be the kind of jobs that allow young people to stay at home and put their talents to use in the local economy. Estep also says that solutions have been offered by The Letcher Governance Project prior to the SOAR Summit.
“Before the SOAR Summit we did the #our444million campaign. And the point of that was to get suggestions surrounding the question: If you had $444 million dollars, how would you invest it in Eastern Kentucky? We got dozens of brilliant, beautiful ideas; things that are proven to actually generate income, quality of life, and lots of jobs.”
Indeed, numerous comments and suggestions have been logged on social media using #our444million. By searching the hashtag on Facebook, various news articles and studies can be read, as well as ideas posted by local citizens, which propose using the $444 million in government money allocated for the prison to fund projects such as small business start-up programs, drug rehab facilities, and even a possible designation and promotion of the Daniel Boone National Forest as a National Park to help generate tourism revenue, plus many more suggestions, which can be viewed by searching #our444million.
Hal Rogers projects the final steps necessary for placing the Letcher County Prison Project in motion should be completed by the end of the summer. The Letcher County Governance Project can be contacted through Facebook.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.