Three inmates at Wyoming’s only women’s prison have asked the federal district court to force the state to deal with overcrowding and deteriorating facilities that they allege have created unconstitutional conditions of confinement.
In the complaint filed in November in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne, the three inmates at the Wyoming Women’s Center allege that overcrowding and staff turnover at the prison fuel tensions between inmates and have led to a rise in violence.
The overcrowding coupled with leaking roofs and undependable heating and cooling equipment threatens inmates’ safety and health, the complaint alleges. The conditions have also required the Department of Corrections to force women into jails and prisons that are not designed to house them, the complaint says. Those circumstances mean the DOC has failed its constitutional obligations to the prisoners, the complaint charges.
Department of Corrections officials said they have not “been properly served” with the lawsuit, nor have they been asked to respond to the court. After consulting with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office, the DOC’s top leaders declined to respond to a series of questions about the allegations made in the complaint, citing pending litigation.
The complaint’s author, inmate Sheryl Ellis, told WyoFile she has seen inmates fighting as they feel more crowded. Staffing shortages and turnover limits staff capacity to control the inmates, she said.
A steady influx of new inmates is driving the tensions, Ellis said.
Crowding in the Wyoming prison system has forced the DOC to lease bed space for its inmates — both male and female — in county jails and in a Mississippi private prison, according to DOC’s 2019 supplemental budget request.
Lawmakers are now moving criminal justice reform legislation to stem the prison crowding, but years of inaction by the Legislature, coupled with budget cuts to the DOC, are bringing the crisis to a boiling point.
Shipping women inmates to county jails has led to discriminatory practices at those facilities, according to the complaint, which also lists inmates Julie Jacobsen and Bobby Fowler as plaintiffs.
Ellis alleges that during her time at a county jail she was forced to witness a sexual relationship between two other inmates. After she complained about conditions in the jail, she said jail authorities placed her in a “suicide pod” where she had to disrobe and use the toilet in view of a video camera monitored by male deputies.
The complaint suggests that prison officials are aware of the inequities in conditions between state prisons and county jails, where it costs less to house an inmate. Inmate counseling, religious services and educational opportunities are less available at jails.
Some inmates in the Wyoming Women’s Center say the wardens there have used threats of a trip to “county” to maintain discipline and obedience, according to the inmates.
“[Wyoming Women’s Center] Warden [Rick] Catron and Associate Warden Molden have gone on record as saying that if [any] prisoner becomes what they consider to be a ‘problem’ by way of objecting to unconstitutional conditions of confinement at WWC,” the complaint reads, “they will be immediately sent to ‘county’ as a punitive measure specifically designed to quash such complaints and grievances.”
Ellis’ lawsuit, filed in November, has yet to be acted upon by a judge.
It was filed in “forma pauperis,” meaning that its authors are asking a judge to waive a $400 fee to file the lawsuit and serve the defendants — the Department of Corrections and the Wyoming Women’s Center.
The legal complaint offers a window into how overcrowding and staff shortages may have affected the lives of inmates and DOC employees.
As of Feb. 6, there were 24 female inmates housed at two county jails and 12 women housed at the men’s medium-security prison in Torrington, according to the DOC.
Ellis’ complaint lays out her own relocations. From 2017 to 2018 she was housed in two county jails and two prisons — both the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk and and the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institute, a men’s prison in Torrington.
State inmate records confirm the movements Ellis lists in her court filing. In June 2017, Ellis was transferred to the Platte County Detention Center in Wheatland. From there, she was transferred in October 2017 to the Niobrara County Detention Center in Lusk. She stayed there until December, when she was returned to the women’s prison.
She was moved again in August 2018 and was taken to the men’s medium security prison in Torrington. In October, she again was returned to the Wyoming Women’s Center, where she remains presently.
During the 2017 stay at the Platte County Detention Center, Ellis says she was placed in a “suicide pod” where she could be watched on camera, though she was not suicidal. Inmates were initially put in the suicide pod around the time of the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse, Ellis said, which law enforcement officials worried would fill jails as outsiders flocked to Wyoming.
During her first stay in the pod, she saw the camera and was told by the deputies guarding the jail it was not functional. To test the theory, Ellis said, she wetted down toilet paper and placed it over the lens. Over the prison intercom system, she said, deputies immediately told her to remove the toilet paper. She removed it but the deputies then taped a piece of paper over the camera lens in answer to the inmates’ privacy concerns.
Ellis said she wrote to WWC Warden Catron about the conditions in the Wheatland jail, but to no avail. After making her complaints known, Ellis said, she was placed back into the suicide pod and this time the deputies refused to block the video camera.
She was forced to undress and use the toilet on a video feed, which was watched by only male deputies, Ellis wrote in the complaint.
“I felt like I was a peep show” Ellis said in a subsequent phone interview with WyoFile. “I was the subject for a whole bunch of voyeurism,” she said. She felt degraded and dehumanized by the incident, she said.
“My body belongs to nobody but me, my children when they were born and my husband. That’s it,” Ellis said in a telephone interview.
Though the DOC is supposed to provide assistance to inmates housed in county jails, it did not act on her complaints, Ellis said.
Questions to the Wheatland Sheriff’s Department, which is not named in the lawsuit, went unanswered. County jails are under the command of the county sheriff, an elected official.
Initially reached by WyoFile via phone, Platte County Sheriff Clyde Harris said questions should be directed to the DOC.
“I don’t care,” he said when informed some of the allegations deal directly with the jail and the deputies under his watch. “If you have any questions you can direct them to the Wyoming Women’s Center.” He then abruptly ended the phone call.
His office did not respond to a subsequent email with a detailed list of questions about Ellis’ 2017 stay.
There are currently no female WDOC inmates being held in the Platte County Detention Center.
In its budget request for the remainder of the current two-year budget cycle, the Department of Corrections did not ask for funding to house inmates at that jail, though it did request money to pay for housing in six other county jails. The DOC and Sheriff Harris both declined to answer questions about why.
Too many prisoners, too few guards
Inside the Wyoming Women’s Center, staffing shortages and turnover and a constant influx of new inmates is feeding the prison’s sense of tension, Ellis said.
“Needs are not being met and people become very tense, very nervous,” Ellis said of the situation in the women’s prison. “Think of when you walk into an elevator and there’s 10 people in there. No one gets any time alone.”
The agency has struggled publicly to staff its prisons for years, asking and securing raises for correctional officers last year. A recent “government efficiency report” made to the Wyoming Legislature indicates those struggles continue — and suggest staffing at the Wyoming Women’s Center in particular is an issue.
A December 2017 DOC letter to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee noted that security staff turnover at WWC ranged between 8.6 percent and 33.33 percent from 2002 to November 2017. Average annual turnover is nearly 23 percent.
The Legislature eliminated 20 positions from the DOC from 2012-2014, according to the October 2018 report prepared by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information. Steep budget cuts made by Gov. Matt Mead in 2016 required the DOC to eliminate 40 more correctional officer positions and defund 122 others. All told, the agency has defunded or eliminated 182 positions since 2011.
At the Wyoming Women’s Center, the staff is down roughly 17 percent from what its staff should be, the state report says. That percentage is higher than the staff reductions in the agency’s other prison facilities. Even as staff has been cut, prison populations continue to boom, according to the report.
“Current staff reductions have stressed the remaining work force,” the report said. “Workload has increased exponentially due to the reduction in force combined with an increased offender population. As a result the agency has over expended the allocation for overtime throughout the agency and seen a reduction in staff productivity as a consequence.”
The agency provided A&I with a list of 10 priorities it wants to see funded. Funding all the positions at the Wyoming Women’s Center was third on the list, above the state’s other prison facilities.
The women’s request for a preliminary injunction also alleges that a malfunctioning heating and cooling system and a leaky prison roof have led to unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the prison. In one episode in December 2017, Ellis alleged, the heating system failed during bitter Wyoming cold and inmates spent at least a week being ordered to move mattresses close together in common areas for warmth while sleeping.
The situation was akin to the way cattle huddle together when outside in cold Wyoming winds, Ellis told WyoFile.
In the complaint, the women also say repeated complaints about mold have gone unaddressed. Ellis also claimed she slipped and fell twice as a result of leaking roofs, causing “debilitating” and “permanent” damage to her shoulder and knee.
Communications between the Wyoming Attorney General’s office and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union also suggest the prison has struggled with its climate control system. The letters were provided to WyoFile by the ACLU of Wyoming. Stephen Pevar, a national attorney with the organization, has engaged in several legal fights over conditions at Wyoming prisons and jails over the last few decades.
“A number of women prisoners have told us exactly the same thing,” Pevar told WyoFile last week, speaking about “the mold, the unsanitary conditions in addition to the overcrowding.”
The complaints in a September, 2018 letter from Pevar to an attorney at the Attorney General’s office echo complaints made in Ellis’ court filing about leaks in the roof, dangerous mold, inadequate ventilation. It carries the names of eight inmates, but in the letter Pevar writes that “others are too afraid of retaliation by individual guards or administrators.” Ellis is not one of the inmates named, but Jacobsen and Pevar are.
In a response to Pevar’s letter, DOC Director Bob Lampert responded that some of the inmates’ concerns were unfounded, while others weren’t. The roof had indeed had leaks, and the agency has active contracts to repair the roof.
But, Lampert wrote “the Department has continually monitored building conditions for any health or safety concerns that might arise as a result of the leaks.” They have not found any, Lampert wrote. The agency has also sent an air quality testing company into the facility to search for mold.
The inspectors did not find a dangerous strain of “black mold” that worried inmates, Lampert wrote. They did find and subsequently contracted with a cleaning company to remove potentially “allergenic” mold.
The heating system has also been repaired, Lampert wrote.
“Too little, too late”
The Wyoming Legislature is taking some measures to reduce overcrowding this year, advancing criminal justice reforms suggested by a nine-month long analysis of the state’s crime and incarceration data conducted by outside experts. But such measures may take time to stem years of increasing incarceration rates in the state.
Ellis thinks there is more work to be done, she said. She is a nonviolent offender, who was sentenced to a six- to seven-year sentence after being convicted of her fifth drunk driving offense in a 10-year period. She believes offenses that don’t involve violence lead to unnecessarily harsh penalties, she said.
In an interview, she acknowledged the prison will indeed fix its physical problems, though she called it “too little too late.” The prison overcrowding is a deeper issue, she said, that she hopes her requested injunction will illuminate.
“We’re talking about a really big problem and it’s deep seated,” she said. Her complaint asks the Federal District Court of Wyoming to “take WDOC/WWC to church.”