Light breaks through clouds over Wyoming’s State Penitentiary in Rawlins. (photo courtesy of the Wyoming Department of Corrections)

Budget cuts to the Wyoming Department of Corrections will make Wyoming communities and the state’s prisons less safe, and lead to people spending more time behind bars, according to Gov. Mark Gordon and department documents describing a $23 million budget reduction.

Gordon announced more than $250 million in spending reductions across state agencies on Wednesday, and said additional 10% reductions to agency budgets were on the way. He also called on the Legislature to find yet another 10% in cuts, noting that much of the budget is comprised of programs and initiatives lawmakers put into place.  

Of the WDOC, Gordon said: “There are going to be reductions in funding to programs that help keep these individuals out of prison and help keep these communities safe.” 

The Legislature allocated the agency an annual budget of $288 million at the start of 2020, before an oil price war and COVID-19’s impact to the economy wiped out a third of the state’s projected revenue. 

The state’s probation and parole officers will find themselves with larger caseloads. Experts who have examined Wyoming’s correctional system say increased caseloads hurt efforts to keep the recently released from winding up back behind bars. They also found that probation and parole violations — not new crimes — were the biggest driver of growth in Wyoming’s prison population. 

Across the board, the cuts threaten progress the state has made in reducing the population of its strained prison system.

Inmates at the Wyoming State Penitentiary prepare to walk to their seats for a graduation ceremony in July 2017. Ten students earned High School Equivalency Certificates, while three earned certificates in computer technology from Central Wyoming College. Such educational programming is threatened by staff shortages at the prison. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Notably, Gordon did not reduce funding for in-prison substance abuse treatment, a cut his predecessor Gov. Matt Mead made in 2016, the last time a plunge in the energy industry led the state to emergency budget cuts. Lawmakers refunded the programs after it became clear the lack drove a costly spike in recidivism. 

Even with substance abuse treatment intact, the executive branch appears to expect this round of cuts will also drive people back behind bars. Such growth is expensive for the state. The cuts will also threaten criminal justice reform efforts advocates across Wyoming’s government have pushed through in recent years. Described as “justice reinvestment,” those reforms call for investing in alternatives to incarceration now to recoup savings from prison budgets in the future. 

One of Gordon’s cuts will remove funding for 70 beds at adult community correction centers — often known as halfway houses. These alternatives to incarceration are both cheaper for the taxpayer and have benefits for reintegration into society.

Cuts aren’t the only blow to Wyoming’s justice reform effort. They come as Wyoming is losing longtime advocates for such programs. The state’s veteran prison director and an architect of justice reinvestment, Bob Lampert, recently retired. His retirement followed the departure of his deputy, Steve Lindley. 

Lindley and Lampert were familiar and trusted faces in the Legislature. A key legislative ally of reform, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater), just lost his primary election to a challenger from the right, and will give up his seat at the end of the year. 

The cuts are also likely to exacerbate existing staffing shortages, which are most pressing at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. 

A year ago, prison officials reported that staffing shortages at that prison had already led to extended lockdowns — a situation they worried would lead to inmate unrest. The new budget cuts could exacerbate those conditions, even as inmate populations are maximized, the department reports. 

One budget cut will remove unfilled correction officer positions at the state prison, costing the department money it’s been using to pay increased overtime costs.

“Although the inmate population at WSP will be maximized as a result of other reductions, staff deployment may have to be reconfigured resulting in less direct inmate supervision. This could result in an increase in inmate disciplinary violations, disruption and violence,” one description of the cuts’ impacts read. 

Goods, services and staffing capabilities at the state’s other chief penal institutions will be reduced. The medium security prison in Torrington and the women’s prison in Lusk will take reductions in operational expenses of up to $1 million each. 

“Such reductions will not result in any constitutional rights being violated,” the agency wrote, but “rather a reduction in available program goods and services across the facility. This could result in an increase in grievances and litigation.” 

Grievances refer to the process inmates can use to register complaints and concerns about staff or the condition of the prisons. In late 2018, inmates at the women’s prison sued the state of Wyoming over conditions there, citing overcrowding and physical conditions of the prison as unconstitutional.

The Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk. (Google Earth)

Public safety is just one of the areas where the Wyoming government will be able to do less going forward. The DOC, along with the Department of Health, the Department of Family Services, the Wyoming community college system and the University of Wyoming, have among the largest agency budgets, and thus took the largest funding hits. 

The Department of Health took a $90 million cut. That jumped to $116.5 million with the loss of federal matching funds. Gordon bemoaned a number of cuts he’d made to health programs that provide food and comfort to the state’s elderly, vaccinations for some children and programs for early childhood developmental and educational programs. 

“None of these have been easy and none of these are being put out as some sort of political statement,” Gordon said. 

“It’s especially unfortunate when you realize most of our programs serve Wyoming’s more at-risk citizens including our older residents, disabled individuals and those with very low incomes,” health department director Mike Ceballos said in a statement put out by the agency. 

Between 20 and 30 state employees lost their jobs because of the cuts, the Casper Star-Tribune reported

The vast majority of some of the biggest budgets, like DOH funding, go to programs instead of paying state employees. Gordon emotionally cited workers at the state mental hospital in Evanston and the Wyoming Life Resource Center, a state facility in Lander dedicated to serving the disabled, as exceptions.

“If you’ve seen the noble clients at the Life Resource Center, you know how challenging it is to make sure that we give quality lives to these people,” Gordon said. 

It’s not clear where the bottom is. Lawmakers have refused to reform the state’s tax structure to lessen its dependence on the diminished energy industry. 

The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee continued that trend one day before Gordon announced the budget cuts that he called “devastating.” The committee rejected a measure to raise the sales tax by 1% and a measure to eliminate many of a long list of sales tax exemptions, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported. 

Many business services, like accounting and financial services, are exempted. So too are services like hair cuts at barber shops and beauty salons or leisure activities like golfing fees and ski tickets. 

Lawmakers have yet to offer any spending reductions of their own. The Wyoming Legislature has not met to pass laws since a special session in May, which centered on handing over control of federal stimulus money to the governor. 

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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