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Lawmakers choose waiting game for penitentiary

A single room in the Wyoming State Penitentiary controls the facility’s entire electrical system. Shifting soils beneath the prison’s foundations have at times made its roof leak. “If we ever get any water inside that transformer switch, it’ll create a plasma [explosion] that will be very destructive,” said Jeff Heier, facilities manager.  

Jeff Heier, the Wyoming State Penitentiary facilities manager, holds up a chunk of concrete that fell from a crack in the wall. Chunks like these can become weapons in the hands of inmates, prison staff said. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Heier described a ball of plasma, electrical matter that could fry the electrical system and shut down power to the entire prison, leaving inmates and staff in the dark. There is no viable back-up system.

The scenario might be the most significant threat posed by unstable soils under the less-than-two-decades old “south building,” but it’s far from the only one. Doors fail to close and lock, windows form spiderwebs of cracks, whole offices have become uninhabitable, finger-width cracks lace the walls, and chunks of concrete — potential weapons — fall from the structure.

The state fire marshal no longer gives the penitentiary an

annual clearance, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert told the Joint Appropriations Committee July 18. Instead it’s day-to-day, he said.

Prison inhabitants, be they inmates or staff, have been waiting while lawmakers deliberate. Now, the Joint Appropriations Committee wants to bet on an engineering firm’s assessment that soil movements behind the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s degradation are slowing and could soon stop.

Cheap fix

At a July 18 meeting, the committee recommended to Gov. Matt Mead that he postpone part of a previous repair strategy — pumping concrete grout into the soil, which Rep. Don Burkhardt (R, HD-15, Rawlins) estimated as a $3 million dollar project.

Instead, they said, Mead should follow recommendations by a new engineering firm, the second to examine the prison in two years.  

Pressures caused by soils shifting beneath the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s foundations are causing prison walls to move and split, forming cracks like this one. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The firm WJE Associates had been brought in to conduct a peer review of previous firm Martin/Martin’s assessment that a long-term repair for the state’s crumbling prison could cost up to $87 million. Legislators had balked at the price reached by Martin/Martin, and during the 2017 General Session chose to seek a peer review.

WJE came back with a radically different conclusion, which if correct offers a far cheaper solution to a state keeping a close eye on its coffers. The prison has seen the worst of the soil shifting and movement should begin to slow, WJE said in a report. Without having to prepare for future soil movement, the penitentiary could be repaired for merely $7.5 million, WJE told appropriations committee members gathered in Rawlins on July 18. The state’s immediate goal should be draining water away from the foundations, to prevent soils from swelling, they said.

As the soils beneath the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s foundations shift, it is causing floors to sink and heave, resulting in spaces full of loose concrete at the meeting of floor and wall. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Not only was WJE’s new price tag far below Martin/Martin’s estimate, it fits neatly within a pot of $7.75 million the Legislature had previously appropriated for the Governor’s use on prison repairs. If WJE is right, the Legislature might not need to make any new appropriations for the prison when it reconvenes in the spring of 2018. If WJE is wrong, the drainage work was recommended by both engineering firms, and would have been done anyways.

Lawmakers and Department of Corrections officials celebrated the committee’s decision as a step in the right direction. “We just need to get off our fat behinds and do something,” Burkhardt said before the vote.

The recommendation for draining came with strong wording:

“The failure to perform the work this summer will likely lead to additional costs, create substantial risk to the daily operations of the facility, and may cause structural movement at the facility that will pose additional safety concerns,” the letter read.

Cracks created by soils shifting beneath the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s foundations can be large enough to fit a pen, or multiple fingers. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

But the committee’s recommendations are already underway and contractors weren’t worried about the funding, said Ian Catellier, a State Department of Construction project manager. The biggest change was postponing the concrete grout project, he said. The governor did not need the JAC’s permission to spend the money, and had already spent some of it on redesigning the electrical system and other repairs.

Planning to correct the drainage issues was also underway, Catellier said. “We knew the money was there and they were working on that design.”

Lawmakers WyoFile spoke to realized that they weren’t offering new solutions, but believed that efforts needed to be hastened.

“It wasn’t getting done fast enough,” said Rep. Bob Nicholas (R, HD-8, Cheyenne), the House Appropriations Committee Chairman.

“I think we’re trying to speed it up,” Burkhardt said. “I don’t think there are any new projects on the list.”

Hurry up and wait

For Bob Lampert, the director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, the meeting brought an end to indecision over the competing firms, he told WyoFile.

Lampert has testified various times to the appropriations committee about the state of the prison. At times the sessions have been tense. Lawmakers in Rawlins drilled him on why repairs to the electrical modular have taken years to complete. “All that stuff frustrates me,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Bruce Burns (R, SD-21, Sheridan) told WyoFile. “I thought they would be further along.”

When not testifying before the Joint Appropriations Committee July 18 in Rawlins, WDOC Director Bob Lampert, center, spent much of the meeting leaned forward in his chair listening to the debate. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Finding an appropriate place to site the electrical modular had taken several tries, and the DOC had gone through various setbacks in clearing procedural hurdles with the state. “If there’s any blame being taken for working within the guidelines we’ve been given, I’ll take that blame,” Lampert told lawmakers.

When not testifying, he spent much of the meeting leaned forward in his chair, listening to the debate with his head down and his hands joined in front of him as if in prayer. But he was relieved as lawmakers left their seats: “We wanted some direction and we got it,” he said.

Waiting and seeing

WJE’s findings seem like a win for the state, but given the history of half measures and failed fixes for Wyoming’s only maximum-security prison, legislators didn’t express complete confidence in the firm’s conclusion. At best it’s an experiment, they said.

“If [repairs] do work out that’s great,” Burns told WyoFile. If not, he said, it’s “back to previous discussion.”

The previous discussion is the far more difficult choice between Martin/Martin’s expensive repair options versus starting over with a new prison, located on a different piece of real estate.

Sen. Stephen Pappas (R, SD-7, Cheyenne), told lawmakers not to walk away thinking they’d come up with a cure. Pappas is an architect who sat on a 2016 legislative task force on the prison, and joined the appropriations committee’s meeting as a non-voting advisor. He told lawmakers he wanted to hear Martin/Martin respond to WJE’s conclusions, which didn’t happen at the meeting. He has questions, and doubts, about both reports, he said.

“I’m really concerned that this is not the solution,” he told WyoFile in an interview last week. “WJE thinks this will be the solution because movement will stop.”

Click here for a feature on a prison graduation held amidst WDOC challenges

Lawmakers don’t have any clear conclusion on whether the soil will continue moving or not, Burkhardt said. “Ultimately it’s a difference of opinion,” he said. “I’m not sure we will ever have a full, complete, 100-percent study or knowledge of that.”

If WJE is wrong, even minimal movement could be problematic in a prison, Martin/Martin engineer John Lund told the committee. “An inch to an inch and a half of movement is not something you can work with in a corrective facility,” he said.  

In the meantime, correctional staff continues to have its work cut out for it.

“We will keep this thing operational until we just can’t anymore,” WSP Warden Michael Pacheco told reporters before the meeting.

A corrections officer from the Wyoming State Penitentiary listens to lawmakers take testimony from competing engineering firms. Both inmates and officers will be affected by the state’s choices on its only maximum-security prison. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected]

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