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As Wyoming State Penitentiary deteriorates, security becomes an increasing concern

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RAWLINS — Inmates peered from their cells through slender windows as the prison’s facilities manager pointed to spiderweb cracks in the glass, the same glass that separates the prisoners’ common area from the hallway and the hallway from the guards’ control room.

In an activity room just down the hall, the manager, Jeff Heier, pointed out a large gap where a wall is splitting. He stuck his hand inside to show how wide it had become and pulled out a chunk of concrete, sharp on the edges.

“Anything can be a weapon,” remarked Major Ethan Remacle, who leads the prison’s security.

Jagged rocks are just one of the security concerns at the state’s only high-security correctional facility as buildings slowly shift on unstable soils. Doors don’t always latch. At least one office is no longer occupied due to safety concerns. Alarms don’t always ring when an emergency door is breached. Telephone lines from command rooms are severed or crushed as the buildings move. In just one housing unit, 74 panes of glass are cracking. Leaks in the electrical room — which supplies power to the entire facility — are increasingly concerning. Inch-wide cracks in floors and walls become good spots to hide contraband.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

A crack in the wall of an inmate bathroom pictured Monday at the State Penitentiary.

Every day, staff at the Wyoming State Penitentiary make adjustments to keep the 16-year-old facility operational and safe for its employees and the 690 inmates who live there.

They adjust latches and shave doors, which hang crooked in their frames. They prop up ceilings. They build small ramps when the gap between one floor and the next becomes too large. They repair the wiring that powers the barred sliding doors. They reapply sealant as it’s sucked into voids between separating floors and walls.

The prison is making repairs as each immediate need presents itself, said Warden Michael Pacheco. Every area of the institution has issues, though some are worse than others.

The building is safe, he said. But concerns about security are growing. The Department of Corrections now looks to lawmakers to decide what’s to be done.

“We will keep that thing operational until we can’t anymore,” Pacheco told reporters after a tour of the prison Monday. “But a decision has to be made.”

An old issue

It’s not the first time the state has dealt with structural concerns at its largest prison.

Within sight of the current prison is its predecessor, a complex of squat, tan buildings surrounded by overgrown bushes. The Department of Corrections was forced to abandon the previous structure, called the North Facility, after only 20 years when it became unsafe due to a variety of structural issues, including poor drainage and soils that swell and shrink in response to moisture.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Razor wire surrounds the unused North Facility at the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

State government officials decided to then build the new prison a quarter of a mile away. A 1997 report on the soils at the prospective site noted that “the site appears suitable for proposed construction” but expansive bedrock and soils “will require particular attention in the design and construction,” according to a state summary of the construction.

Inmates first moved into the main building of the prison in 2001, though construction on additional buildings continued until 2009. The prison was supposed to last at least 50 years. After only a few, however, facility staff started to notice that something wasn’t right.

First, they noticed cracked windows. Then they discovered fissures on the exteriors and in the gym. The prison has been monitored, evaluated and repaired continuously since 2011. The staff maintains a spreadsheet of all the issues as well as photos tracking the progress. When asked on Monday how big the spreadsheet is, staff members simply laughed.

Along with daily maintenance to walls, windows and doors, corrections staff members have focused on repairs to two areas: the gym and the electrical room.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

A damaged wall in an inmate gymnasium at the Wyoming State Penitentiary was cut away and temporarily braced with steel supports.

A temporary plywood wall blocked off a section of the gym Monday. Two-by-fours held up a wall in one of the corners, where a level duct-taped to the wall continued to monitor shifts. Cracks spidered away from the gap in the wall, each marked by the exact time they were noticed. In once case, a fissure expanded more than a foot in a six-minute period.

“We were watching them move at one point,” Heier said.

A sturdy pole held up the ceiling outside the electrical room, which directs power to the entire facility. Previously, one side of a heavy beam crashed through that area of the ceiling because the cinderblocks that held it weren’t properly constructed to hold its weight. Chunks of concrete weighing up to 4 pounds fell with the beam, staff said.

As the ceiling inside the electrical room shifts, fireproofing material continues to crack and fall. Steel beams that cross the space near the ceiling have bowed under the pressure. The roof occasionally leaks — an obvious hazard in a room of electrical equipment. If the electrical equipment were compromised, all power would be lost. Doors wouldn’t open. Cooking appliances wouldn’t work. Feeds from security cameras would go dark.

“We would lose everything if we lost this room,” Heier said.

Competing proposals

To prevent that catastrophe, lawmakers authorized $7 million in 2016 for immediate repairs, including work on the gym and the electrical room, which is being reconstructed in a separate prefabricated building outside of the facility.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

A web of fine cracks spread across a block wall in an inmate gymnasium at the Wyoming State Penitentiary. 

But lawmakers acted less swiftly when confronted with the real questions: To rebuild or to repair? And if repairs are the right choice, how much are they willing to spend?

Those are tough questions at a time when revenue shortages caused by downturns in the energy sector are forcing the state to eliminate services and staff. And so, lawmakers looked to the experts.

In December 2014, the state asked an engineering firm, Martin/Martin Wyoming, to investigate the issues at the prison and estimate costs for rebuilding or repairs. For more than a year, the firm’s engineers reviewed documents and evaluated the facility. A task force created to review the issues at the prison recommended that lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session approve $87 million in repairs as outlined by Martin/Martin.

Legislators instead ordered a review of the Martin/Martin report, created a savings account for a future decision and authorized up to $15 million in spending from the rainy day fund for emergency repairs. The Department of Corrections also signed a contract with a private prison company that would provide housing for inmates should they be forced out of the prison.

Martin/Martin found that the structural issues are caused by primarily unstable soils that swell and shrink in response to moisture. The firm proposed four options, including rebuilding the prison at a new site, but legislators focused on one: an $87 million package of extensive repairs expected to keep the facility operational for the remainder of its 50-year lifespan.

“It’s not intended to be a Band-Aid,” John Lund, the lead engineer on the project, told members of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Lund also said he personally believed the best option was to rebuild the prison at a different site. A construction company that has been working on projects at the prison estimated a new prison would cost about $173 million to construct, not including the price of the land.

But those at the second engineering firm, WJE Associates, came away with a different diagnosis during their two-month review — and a cheaper solution.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

A cracked concrete floor at the state prison. 

According to the firm’s report, the structural movements at the South Facility, where most inmates live, are caused by uplifts farther beneath the surface that are slowing and could stop in the near future.

Their recommended repairs are far less extensive than those proposed by Martin/Martin and cost only $7.5 million.

Both firms, however, agreed on one issue. The prison’s drainage and grading issues need to be addressed immediately. The ground outside the facilities slopes toward the buildings, sending water into, instead of away from, the area.

“The one area where we are absolutely in agreement, where we are in lockstep, is that water is the enemy,” said one of WJE’s engineers.

The members of Joint Appropriations appeared to take that to heart when they decided Tuesday to recommend to Gov. Matt Mead that he approve funding to fix the facility’s drainage and grading as well as immediate repairs to damaged doors and glass panes. To do so, they will combine recommendations from both WJE Associates and Martin/Martin.

“This is a mechanism to take care of the immediate problems,” said Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who chairs the committee. “We may be back here doing this again next year.”

Broader issues

Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert said Thursday that the decision will allow the prison to remain safe and operational for the time being.

“If our repair and mitigation efforts prove inadequate in the long-run, the Legislature will then have to consider either funding a more aggressive level of mitigation for the existing facility or paying for a replacement facility in Rawlins,” he said in an emailed statement.

But he reminded lawmakers Tuesday that he can’t afford to lose a prison bed due to a growing number of people in the state’s corrections system.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Major Ethan Remacle stands outside the Wyoming State Penitentiary during a media tour Monday in Rawlins.

Incarceration rates in Wyoming have risen drastically in the past few decades — from 114 people incarcerated for every 100,000 residents in 1980 to 407 people in 2016, Lampert told legislators.

In the same period, he said, the number of reported crimes has dropped by nearly half. But average sentence lengths have grown, as have average lengths of stay in prisons. By 2020, he estimates that the state’s five correctional facilities will be at capacity.

Despite the growth, Mead has asked the department to make budget cuts, which ultimately meant staff cuts from the state penitentiary, the freeze of other positions throughout the agency and reduced funding for substance abuse treatment programs. A rising percentage of probationers and parolees are becoming incarcerated for violations involving drugs and alcohol, he said.

“None of the best practice solutions to substance abuse treatment are being provided,” he said.

Lampert presented the Joint Appropriations Committee with two options: pay for more beds or expand alternative sentencing options and improve services that keep probationers and parolees from incarceration.

“Unless public policy changes ... we’re going to have to be ready to build more beds,” he said.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

David Birozy, a locksmith at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, accompanies a media tour of the facility Monday in Rawlins. Birozy works full-time to keep the prison's doors functioning, as shifting floors and walls constantly throw them out of alignment. 

The continuous maintenance at the penitentiary has also stressed limited staff resources. The prison currently pays a staff of 308 — substantially less than the 427 funded positions at the facility in 2003.

Not only are staff members spending their days making repairs, but they also have to allocate employees to monitor and protect contract construction workers. As of May 31, he had spent $2.4 million in overtime pay for workers at the prison — about $448,000 more than was budgeted to last the entire year.

“I’m not an alarmist, but staffing is becoming a more critical issue than some of the repairs to the building,” he said.

The unanswered question

One question hovers over the controversy: Who’s to blame?

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office is investigating the construction and design of the facility to see if any of the contractors are liable. Attorney General Peter Michael said Friday that his office continues to investigate “potential claim issues” regarding the prison. He declined to provide and updates on the process, citing attorney/client privilege. Lampert previously told lawmakers that the prison “wasn’t constructed exactly to design.”

Wyoming State Penitentiary

A gauge installed by a contractor measures changes to a cracking wall at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins.

Legislators attempted to address the issue at the meeting Tuesday. One asked Lund, the engineer from Martin/Martin, who made the decisions that fated the prison.

“I’ve not really found a clear answer to that,” Lund said.

He said it could have happened when management of the project was outsourced to a private company.

“It appears there was an incentive for the third party to keep costs down and expedite construction,” Lund said. “I think the state lost some oversight when they did that.”

It also appears that some recommendations to mitigate that movement were not followed during construction, according to the firm’s report. For example, the firm found that builders failed to correctly install some concrete slabs and didn’t construct critical empty spaces that the expanding soils could fill without impacting the structures. The report also noted that in some cases the recommended solutions were simply not pursued.

“Structurally-supported ground level floors were discussed in the geotechnical report, but were not selected for use at the WSP,” the report states. “Properly designed and constructed structural ground level floors would have greatly reduced or eliminated the damage from floor slab movement.”

Regardless of faults in design or construction, Lund said, the state knew all along the dangers the site posed.

“The risks of movement at this site were pretty clear when it was built,” Lund said. “It was a risk that was taken that hasn’t turned out well for the state.”

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer


Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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