Broad Coalition Defeats Plan to Build Federal Prison on Toxic Former Mountaintop Removal Coal Site

Interview with Panagioti Tsolkas, co-founder of the Prison Ecology Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In June, the federal Bureau of Prisons announced that it was cancelling the construction of a maximum security prison that it had been planning to build on top of a former mountaintop removal coal site in Letcher County, in eastern Kentucky.

A coalition of environmental, criminal justice reform, prison abolition groups and local community members had fought the $510 million project for almost four years.  The coalition of groups included Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition. Opponents argued that the prison was not needed, and that the location was dangerous for both prisoners and prison workers.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Panagioti Tsolkas, co-founder of the Prison Ecology Project, part of the Human Rights Defense Center. Here, he talks about how the coalition  came together and defeated the well-financed prison project.

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: It was a federal maximum security prison on 700 acres of a former mountaintop removal strip mine site. On one side it was near a coal sludge pond, so the waste from coal mining dumped in a giant pit, basically toxic waste storage. This is very much the heart of coal country.

We were looking at how prisons and the environment had intersections, and the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Letcher County prison proposal came up for public comment. And so in 2015, I proposed that we look at the EIS and plan a campaign around it. My experience in the environmental movement doing grassroots organizing; direct action; what we call “paper wrenching,” basically engaging in the administrative legal process as citizen petitioners. I reached out to some of the organizations on the ground in Kentucky and some of the national groups I was part of, and some lawyers I’d worked with, and proposed the idea of taking this on as a national campaign and coordinating with local people on the ground. To our surprise we got a lot of support and interest. Social media got a lot of attention. We launched a petition campaign in tandem; that got a lot of support. We built a fundraising campaign to try and come up with resources to do the organizing and possibly litigation. And that’s where things started back in March 2015.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you say a little more about the different strands of organizing that were part of your campaign?

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: There was like a formal comment period that people participated in, and there were also petition drives that several groups supported or initiated on their own, like the Sierra Club, for example, their social media team put out an online petition that gathered around 15,000 petition signers. Roots Action, also online organizing, coordinating organization for activists, I think they gathered another 8,000 to 10,000. So we really did contribute a lot of public comments through this kind of alliance of organizations that worked together.

Last fall the record of decision was released, meaning that after about 3.5 years of being delayed by our opposition, by our public comments and our coordination with local landowners on the ground, we had held the prison off, but they finally issued a record of decision in 2018, and in November we filed a lawsuit, coordinating with 21 federal prisoners around the country, who had a variety of issues with the prison, namely that they were not informed about the public comment process and when they attempted to get information it was not made available in a timely fashion, so they were not able to file comments. In particular their comments were related to public health concerns and the impact on prisoners’ health on top of this former industrial mining site. So those prisoners, in conjunction with the Abolitionist Law Center, which is a non-profit based in western Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Panagioti, what were some of the arguments your coalition made to stop the prison?

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: We felt that some of the issues presented were pretty irrefutable, namely that the federal prison population was actually declining, that the numbers they used saying this prison was necessary, they reflected numbers from ten years ago, not today. So, we saw that our impact from the lawsuit was a huge part of the Bureau of Prisons’ decision to rescind the plan. Basically, they said they didn’t need or want this prison anymore. They cited the prison population numbers we had brought up. They cited the potential environmental concerns that we had raised. And about six weeks, ago they started saying they didn’t plan to move forward with the prison, and then it became official about a month ago, mid-June. So we started celebrating that, a major victory –– the first federal prison that we could find that was stopped with that sort of environmental pressure. It also was the most expensive federal prison on record in the history of prison construction –– $510 million, so over half a billion dollars.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see the possibility of this coalition working together in the future?

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: Yeah, we want to build off this victory, and the alliance between prison abolitionists and environmentalists that formed to fight the Letcher County prison. It’s a model that could be replicated and built around. Like for example right now there’s a proposal to build new prisons that will have to undergo and environmental review. Those are state-level prisons, so it’ll be a little bit different, but a lot of the strategies that were explored and kind of honed in the Letcher County fight could be applicable both on the state and county levels, where I think people could form similar alliances and really push back hard against the effort to expand the prison and jail system in this country.

For more information on the Prison Ecology Project, visit nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology.

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