Dozens of inmates within the Wyoming Department of Corrections live in county jails because the state’s prison system does not have the space or staff to house them.
While using jail space is cheaper, the inmates don’t have access to the educational and rehabilitative programs offered at the state’s correctional facilities, said Carl Voigtsberger, the department’s housing and classification manager.
“There’s no programming, there’s very little medical services,” he said. “Everything having to do with incarceration at a jail is minimized, sometimes to them just sitting and watching a TV.”
About 78 state inmates are currently housed in county jails: 24 in Lincoln County, 16 in Platte, eight in Niobrara and up to 30 in Goshen. The male inmates in Goshen and Platte counties are parole violators waiting for a hearing or inmates waiting for assignments or openings at low-security facilities, like the Honor Farm in Riverton or the Conservation Honor Camp in Newcastle. The male inmates in Lincoln are older inmates serving longer sentences.
Housing inmates in county jails isn’t unusual and has happened sporadically for years, said department spokesman Mark Horan. But the practice will likely become more common as the system’s available beds continue to fill.
At some facilities, like the Wyoming Women’s Center, there are open beds but not enough staff members due to budget cuts. All correctional facilities in the state have a minimum staffing limit, and if it is not met the department has to leave beds open or place the building on lockdown.
The department has a total of 1,231 full-time positions, but 123 of those positions have been frozen or defunded, according to the DOC’s 2017 annual report. The department funded 180 more positions five years ago, according to the 2012 report.
“Staffing issues make us not be able to house as many inmates as we like,” Voigtsberger said. “There are beds available, but staffing levels keep us from using them.”
Empty beds, but no space
Eight inmates from the Wyoming Women’s Center currently live in the Niobrara County Jail because there are too many inmates at the state’s only facility for women and not enough employees to safely staff it. As the prison’s population continued to increase, staffing at the facility has decreased due to budget cuts and difficulty recruiting and retaining employees.
A memo sent to the inmates at the center on Jan. 31 warned the women that they could be moved to a county jail “due to a lack of housing.”
“Do not come and ask if you are going,” the memo states. “We will not give you that information. Do not ask where you will be going, you will not get that information. Do not ask when you will be going, you will not get that information.”
“There is no way around this as the facility is unable to hold the number of women continuing to come to prison,” the memo ends.
The Wyoming Legislature provided $1.2 million in 2012 to renovate a building at the women’s center and turn it into a facility for women with children. The construction was completed in 2014, but the 3,600-square-foot building’s 11 beds have never been occupied because there have never been enough workers, Voigtsberger said.
The facility also lost 22 beds in its unit for women in its intensive addiction treatment program after the Legislature cut funding for substance abuse treatment in 2016, Horan said.
While the women’s prison often operated near capacity, inmates weren’t transferred to jails until June. Vacancies were often created when the women were granted parole or sent to privately-owned corrections facilities to make enough space for those recently sentenced. But that didn’t happen this year.
“It’s a delicate game we play with (community corrections) openings and paroles and discharges,” Voigtsberger said. “It’s kind of a guessing game.”
But Voigtsberger doesn’t see the growth of the female inmate population slowing down any time soon.
“Do I expect (the women’s center population) to continue to increase?” Voigtsberger said. “Yes, I do.”
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, according to the Department of Corrections.
In the same period, the number of reported crimes has dropped by nearly half. But average sentence lengths have grown, as have average lengths of stay in prisons.
Housing an inmate in a county costs the department $55 a day, far less than the $132 a day cost at a state correctional facility. But the jails don’t offer the programs that help inmates succeed once they’re released from custody, which is why the department limits inmates’ stays in jails to six months.
“It costs substantially less, but you’re getting substantially less for the inmate,” Voigtsberger said.
Voigtsberger would prefer to house inmates out of state. Although that would be more expensive and potentially place inmates farther from their families, the prisoners would have access to programming, he said.
“County jails aren’t the solution; they’re a temporary solution,” he said. “Simply building the beds would be great. I’d love to have another 50 beds at the women’s center, but I’d also have to be able to staff them.”
Between 1995 and 2006, the department sent between 400 to 600 inmates to out-of-state facilities when there was no space in the state’s buildings. That ended when the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institute was constructed in Torrington in 2006.
More broadly, the department has noted a 7 percent increase in recidivism since the cuts to substance abuse treatment.
“That’s primarily due to inmates coming out on supervision and failing to meet the conditions of their supervision due to substance abuse issues,” Horan said.
At a July meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee, DOC Director Bob Lampert told lawmakers that the department’s facilities would be at 99 percent capacity by at least 2020 if the state’s prison population continued to grow at its current rate. At that meeting, he said the 682-bed Wyoming State Penitentiary — the state’s only facility designed for high-security male inmates — was at capacity.
At that meeting, Lampert asked lawmakers to take steps that would keep beds open at the state penitentiary, which is suffering from structural faults. He also asked that they consider reforms to the criminal justice system that would keep more people out of the prison system.
Horan said Thursday that the department continues to work with lawmakers to address the issues.
“I really think that when we’re talking about inmate population forecasts, until we see some public policy changes we have every reason to believe our inmate population is going to grow,” he said.