Once in awhile the third time really is the charm. Building prisons where they sink, though, isn’t one of them.

No, you only get one mulligan for that mistake, and the state of Wyoming already used its re-do at the turn of the century, when it constructed a new maximum-security prison facility in Rawlins near where the previous one failed to meet safety standards after only two decades of use. Its replacement — better known as the South Facility — was expected to last at least 50 years, but cracks began appearing a dozen years after it opened.

The North Facility, built in 1980, was forced to close when groundwater issues caused the building to slowly sink.

Much to the consternation and embarrassment of legislators who voted to approve construction of the $90 million South Facility in 2001, groundwater is causing the same heaving and sinking soils underneath the new prison. With the sinking soils have come myriad structural problems, including large cracks across floors and walls, doors way off-kilter, leaking roofs and equipment damage.

According to a correctional officials’ report, conditions at the prison continue to deteriorate. Foundations weren’t built according to specifications, resulting in the foundations lifting floor slabs that had been intended to move independently. Sliding doors in the facility become temporarily disabled due to the building shifts. The entire electrical system bottlenecks in a room with an occasionally leaking roof. And shifting elements of the building could cut cables running to the room, resulting in the loss of power to the entire prison.

A power failure, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Robert Lampert warned, could lead to liabilities for the state that would make the $2 million he recommended for a modular building to house electrical and security systems “look like pocket change.”

Several lawmakers said they don’t want to put any more state funds into prisons near the existing facility. Who can blame them?

All things considered, it sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen unless the state takes the right action soon. But before legislators decide what will be done, they should assure residents that the expensive mistakes already made won’t be exacerbated.

“The risks of movement at the [south] site were understood at the time that it was built,” John Lund, an engineer with Martin/Martin Inc., told the Joint Appropriations Committee when it met in Rawlins last week. “I wouldn’t call it an anomaly … it was a risk that was taken that hasn’t turned out well for the state.” Martin/Martin was hired by the state in 2015 to analyze the structural problems at the prison.

“It frustrates me that we knew and know a lot of what we found out today,” summed up Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper), who joined Reps. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) and Tom Walters (R-Casper) in assuring concerned Rawlins leaders that the prison would remain in the city.

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

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Does the fact that the Wyoming Constitution declared in 1890 that the state penitentiary will be in Rawlins mean that the location is guaranteed in perpetuity, or has the state’s decision to operate three different iterations of the men’s prison there over the past 116 years mean it has already fulfilled that promise?

For my money — actually, the state’s money — I believe the commitment Wyoming’s founders made to the people of Rawlins has been met. If the Legislature decides it can adequately fix the damage already done at the current prison, the city will be able to maintain its long-standing connection to the Department of Corrections. If not, though, Wyoming should be under no obligation to find another Rawlins site that has a chance of working. It literally cannot afford to keep pouring foundations for prisons in an area that has cost the state millions of dollars and threatens safety daily.

The JAC considered four proposals at its interim meeting last week:

  •  Do extensive repairs at a cost of $80 million or more to supposedly extend the life of the prison for decades. It should be remembered that building the entire facility in 2001 cost only $90 million.
  • Spend $7.5 million to fix the prison’s drainage and grading issues, plus replace damaged doors, windows and other equipment.
  • Contract with a private prison company to build and operate a new prison, or let the company build the facility and lease it from them.
  • Build a new prison on its own at a different location. The estimated cost would be about $173 million, not including the land.
  • Several lawmakers backed the $7.5 million option. There was no support at all for Gov. Matt Mead’s recommendation to use the state’s AAA credit rating to bond to repair the prison. That was hardly surprising, given the GOP leadership’s abhorrence of borrowing money to build state facilities.

Paying in cash is off the table too, given the downturn in the mineral economy. Legislators balked at the governor’s call for authority to spend up to $19 million from the state’s $1.6 billion rainy day fund in case of a structural catastrophe at the prison. They finally approved $15 million from the fund for prison repairs.

Last week the JAC voted to recommend to Mead that he release the remainder of $7.5 million in repair money the Legislature had appropriated in 2016. The money would go to address water issue solutions at the prison identified by two engineering firms. But throwing money at this isn’t the answer. If piecemeal repair funding approaches the cost of new construction, the state could wind up spending even more if the “fixes” don’t solve the problems and Wyoming still has to build a new prison.

Under a bill passed earlier this year, beginning June 30, 2019, the state will start saving up to $45 million a year in investment income for a new prison. Once the fund contains at least $250 million, the Legislature would decide how to use the money.

As conceived by House Speaker Steve Harshman (R-Casper) the move is probably the best available one at the moment. Even Mead agreed the savings account was better than doing nothing at all, though he cautioned the state could well end up “paying more in the long run than if we had addressed the situation ‘head-on’ instead of trying to put a Band-Aid on it.”

Harshman told the Casper Star-Tribune last month that bonding could be palatable if the state “had to go out and build a brand new prison tomorrow.” But the speaker said he doesn’t think the situation is urgent and the state still has time to “stretch this thing out for repairs.”

“Stretching this thing out” is a gamble, much like the decision to build near a sinking prison back in 2001. That decision landed us in the current (literal and figurative) hole. Are we really going to try digging ourselves out again by doing it on the cheap? At what point do we put down the shovel?

Fortunately the state has so far declined to entertain the notion of getting involved with a private private prison company, at least beyond its contingency, time-limited contract with the firm CoreCivic for $5 million a year in case an emergency makes it necessary to move prisoners somewhere else.

Private prison outfits are precisely what the state doesn’t need to run to for help, no matter how desperate Wyoming becomes for a solution. Nationally they have a horrible track record for taking care of prisoners. They have a direct incentive to fill up their prisons with as many inmates as possible, and they have zero interest in prisoner rehabilitation because a revolving door at the prison gate boosts profits.

DOC officials and department consultants say that inmates and staff are in no danger living and working at the prison at this time. We all hope they’re right, but it doesn’t hurt to keep in the back of our collective memory what Mel Muldrow, administrator of the state’s Construction Management Division, told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in 2015: “I ask myself all the time, ‘Why did we build a second prison there?'”

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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