A state legislative panel reviewed a report Monday about the 15-year-old Wyoming State Penitentiary – which has buckled floors along with wide cracks separating the walls and sits atop unstable soil – but did not draft a bill to pay for repairs.
That’s because the state’s facing a $157 million revenue shortfall, said Rep. Dave Miller, a Riverton Republican who is chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, which met at Casper College.
Lawmakers will be so focused on finding ways to eliminate the deficit when they convene in Cheyenne in January that they won’t want to try to find an extra $87.2 million – the estimated amount repairs will cost, Miller said.
Miller served on a task force that studied the structural problems at the Rawlins prison.
Miller said Gov. Matt Mead is aware of the building’s issues and may ask lawmakers to address them. A bill could be introduced during the 2017 session of the Wyoming Legislature, sponsored either by an individual lawmaker or by the Joint Appropriations Committee, Miller said.
If no bill is passed, the structural problems at the prison will continue. The prison’s maintenance staff will have to continue to make Band-Aid fixes – installing columns to raise a ceiling in one area, sawing the bottoms off doors as floors rise in another.
Under the main prison building, the soil is swelling and heaving, causing the floor to rise. In ancillary buildings on the east side of the prison, including inside a unit with privileges for inmates with good behavior, the soil is sinking, causing walls to crack.
A 1997 soil report concluded there was a moderate-to-high potential of buildings swelling and collapsing when the soil gets wet. The geotechnical firm that analyzed the prison site and wrote the report recommended the state construct the prison using a specific building system. It’s unknown whether the general contractor followed the design plan.
The Wyoming Attorney General’s office is investigating the construction.
But Miller said that the AG’s investigation is separate from the work of the task force, which had to decide whether to fix the prison or abandon the site and build a new prison altogether at a price of about $259 million.
Keeping in mind the state’s revenue struggles due to a decline in oil, gas and coal, the task force chose to make repairs.
“It looks cheaper on paper,” Miller said. “Some of the consultants, the architects and the engineers said we’ll get the full life of the building.”
Miller said he voted against repairs. He is a geologist and believes the site should be abandoned for one with more stable soil and bedrock. He doesn’t believe the repairs will save the facility.
He noted that the Wyoming Department of Corrections was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice in the late 1990s to abandon the former prison, which sits just north of the current prison site, due to structural problems that the federal government determined made the prisoners unsafe.
Miller doesn’t believe the prison can be fixed for $87.2 million. Much of the equipment is now dated and will need to be upgraded.
“I think you’re talking $100 million-plus,” he said.