Wyoming State Penitentiary

Panes of glass, in a room adjacent to an inmate housing area at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, have fractured under the pressure of the shifting structure. Lawmakers grappled with repair decisions throughout 2017.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Doors at the state’s largest prison don’t always lock. Sometimes they hang off kilter, or stop functioning altogether if their electrical parts are compromised as the buildings shift. Windows crack slowly, shattering in slow motion as the walls move. Walls separate along their seams, leaving behind inches of space and chips of sharp concrete.

The Wyoming State Penitentiary needs tens of millions in repairs, or nearly $180 million to be rebuilt, but money is short in Wyoming’s coffers. Throughout 2017, Wyoming lawmakers continued to weigh their options in fixing the structural issues facing the prison due to unstable soils.

In July, members of the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee recommended that the governor immediately fund repairs to the facility’s drainage issues and replace cracked windows. Engineers from two separate firms recommended that the drainage issues be fixed as moisture was causing the soils beneath the facility to shift, damaging the foundation.

The decision was a partial solution. During that meeting in July, lawmakers weighed whether to complete a more thorough (and expensive) repair to the 682-bed facility or to build a new building altogether. The partial fix was more than $70 million cheaper than the full repair and lawmakers hoped it would fix most of the issues plaguing the buildings.

Officials first started monitoring damage to the state’s high security prison in 2011. During a tour of the Rawlins facility in July, Department of Corrections officials showed reporters the issues that require daily maintenance to keep the buildings operational. Some of the electric doors have been temporarily disabled due to the issues. Offices sat unused because they were deemed unsafe. In December 2016, prison staff restricted 525 inmates to their cells for nearly 42 hours while workers repaired doors.

The state built the penitentiary in 2001, less than a mile from the previous facility after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered that the older building be abandoned due to structural issues. State officials expected the current buildings to last at least 50 years.

It remains unclear who is responsible for the structural problems with the facility. The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office continues to investigate the question but has not made any findings public. One of the engineering firms hired to evaluate the prison’s issues found that not all recommendations were followed during construction.

Workers completing the limited repairs authorized by the appropriations committee in July discovered further construction issues. They found leaking pipes and other faulty plumbing where construction plans were not followed. They also found that the roof was leaking and some insulation was soaked with water.

Lawmakers will reevaluate the status of the prison after the limited repairs are complete. If the work effectively solves the drainage issues and stop or slows the shifting of the soils, lawmakers may be finished with extensive fixes. If not, they will have to consider more expansive and costly repairs during the 2018 legislative session.

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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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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