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Wyoming State Penitentiary

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

It’s no secret that the Wyoming prison system faces significant problems. The state penitentiary in Rawlins has been plagued with structural issues for some time, and lawmakers have been grappling to find a solution that doesn’t cost the state millions of dollars it just doesn’t have.

The prison was built 16 years ago, and was intended to last 50 years. But the prison was built on unstable soil, which has left the facility with cracked walls and buckling floors.

But the Rawlins penitentiary isn’t the Wyoming Department of Corrections’ only problem.

Facilities throughout the state are running into issues with overcrowding and understaffing, which have led to an influx of prisoners in the county jail system. Some prison facilities lack the space for the growing inmate population, so they send inmates to live in county jails until more beds open up. Other facilities have the beds, but they don’t have the staff to support the number of inmates the prisons can house.

The prison system hasn’t been immune from the budget cuts that have affected practically all of state government. Five years ago, the department funded 180 more positions. Now, those frozen and defunded positions have left the prisons with no alternative but to house long-term inmates in facilities meant for short-term stays.

Jails offer only a fraction of the services and programs that prisons do. When inmates stay in the county jails, they miss out on educational and treatment opportunities that would have otherwise helped them rehabilitate.

So as the corrections department grapples with a growing inmate population, the inmates that are already being housed aren’t receiving the tools to prevent recidivism. This will only worsen the problem of an inmate population that the state is already having trouble managing.

In 1980, the state of Wyoming incarcerated 114 people for every 100,000 residents. By 2016, that number had grown to 407. During that same period, reported crime in the state dropped by nearly half and sentence lengths have grown. So why, if crime is down, have prison populations nearly quadrupled?

All of these issues, from the structural problems in Rawlins penitentiary to the growing prison population, suggest lawmakers should conduct a systemic review of the corrections system. Why are these problems happening? Are we doing enough to address them? The citizens of Wyoming deserve answers.

We understand that money is tight and the budget is limited. But by utilizing long-term what should be a temporary solution to a temporary problem, the state has also exposed itself to potential liability. Lawmakers need to address this problem before the ACLU does. A lawsuit certainly isn’t in the budget, either.

There should be a dedicated task force looking into all of these issues, because if our prisons are filling up with people we can’t afford to house, then maybe there’s something wrong with the system that convicts these people in the first place. And lawmakers should be investigating the long-term value of rehabilitation versus the short-term reality of housing inmates in county jails. Because beyond the bottom dollar, there’s an intrinsic value in rehabilitating offenders and helping them become useful members of our society once again.

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Opinion Editor

Dallas Bower joined the Star-Tribune copy desk in June 2017. She studied English at the University of Wyoming. Her favorite book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, or Harry Potter, depending on the day.

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