RAWLINS — State lawmakers will recommend that the governor immediately provide funding to address water issues at the beleaguered state prison after listening to hours of testimony Tuesday from Department of Corrections staff, engineering firms and private prison companies.

The members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee gathered Monday and Tuesday in Rawlins to consider one of Wyoming’s largest looming expenses: the repair or replacement of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Lawmakers and news reporters toured the prison Monday afternoon and evening.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the committee passed a motion recommending that the governor fund the solutions to drainage and grading issues at the facility as recommended by two different engineering firms. The motion also asks that a construction management expert oversees the projects. They did not have a total cost estimate for the solutions.

“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.”

Heaving and sinking soil beneath the prison is causing continual damage to the prison’s buildings. Doors hang off-kilter, cracks spider across floors and walls separate from each other, leaving gaps large enough for someone to stick a hand into them. Prison staff said the shifts require daily maintenance — filing doors so they continue to latch, creating small ramps when floors sit at different levels, replacing caulking as it falls into gaps between walls and floors.

Bob Lampert, director of the Department of Corrections, put it bluntly: The department needs to keep all 682 operational beds at the prison available and as of Monday, he said, the prison was at capacity. The prison population in Wyoming continues to grow and the beds at the department’s facilities are expected to be at 99 percent capacity by 2020, though it could be sooner.

“Those additional people will need to be housed somewhere as we can’t refuse service or hang a no vacancy sign,” he said.

Lampert and department staff assert that the buildings’ shifts pose no immediate danger to inmates or staff. They do have concerns about the security of the facility, however, as crucial doors in the facility become temporarily disabled due to the building shifts.

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Committee members heard from two engineering firms, which each offered proposed fixes to the prison. The two firms disagree what is causing the issues at the facility. While the Martin and Martin group believes the movement is caused by expanding and collapsing soil just beneath the prison, engineers with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates believe some of the heave is originating further beneath the surface and will slow in the coming years.

“There can be a misconception that these soil movements will continue forever,” said John Reins, an engineer with WJE Associates. “That’s not the case.”

Both groups agree on one issue, however. The prison’s drainage and grading issues need to be resolved as fast as possible.

The committee also listened to presentations from two private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, which offered a variety of options for building a new prison. Representatives from GEO Group also said the company could consider leasing and operating the current facility.

The state currently contracts with CoreCivic to house the prison’s inmates should the prison become uninhabitable. The contract, which was extended in May to last until June 2018, allows the state to house up to 750 inmates in the company’s facilities at a cost of up to $5.1 million. Lampert emphasized Tuesday that the contract is only a contingency plan. The company also owns and operates the Cheyenne Transitional Center.

The committee — the group that drafts the first version of the budget bill — considered four proposals:

  • Have the state build a new prison on its own, which is estimated to cost about $173 million to construct plus the cost of the land.
  • Do extensive repairs — including partially demolishing parts of the main facility and replacing some of its slabs — that would extend the life of the prison for decades, which would cost approximately $80 million.
  • Fix the location’s drainage and grading issues as well as replace damaged doors, windows and other equipment to the tune of about $7.5 million. The state will then continue to monitor the shifts at the facility for at least two years.
  • Contract with a private prison company to build a new prison and allow the business to operate it, or let the company build the prison and lease it from them, or lease the current facility to a company.

Three members — Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper; Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander; Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper — said they support pursuing the $7.5 million in repairs as recommended by WJE Associates. Lawmakers assured concerned Rawlins leaders that the prison would remain in the city. Many expressed frustration at the slow pace at which change has occurred.

“There is no perfect answer,” said Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins. “I think we need to get off our fat behinds and make it happen.”

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Multiple people came forward during the time for public comment to warn against contracting with a private prison company. Dee Garrison, president of the Wyoming Association of Correctional Employees, said that private prisons are less safe for employees and staff and are subject to less accountability than publicly run facilities.

Sabrina King, policy director for the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also warned against contracting with the businesses and asked for broader criminal justice reform that will keep more low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of prison.

During the last interim session, a task force of lawmakers and Wyoming leaders studied the issues and recommended that the Legislature authorize funds to repair the prison.

However, during the 2017 session, legislators declined to answer the question of whether the prison should be repaired or replaced. Instead, they opted to create a savings account for an eventual decision, asked for a peer review of previous findings and authorized up to $15 million in spending from the state’s rainy day fund in case of a failure that would require the relocation of prisoners.

Inmates moved into the prison in 2001 and the facility was expected to last at least 50 years. Staff began monitoring the buildings’ cracks and shifts in 2013.

 

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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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