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As Wyoming State Penitentiary Falls Apart, Officials Rush Repairs

by Christopher Zoukis

Built just 17 years ago, but on unstable ground, Wyoming’s maximum-security penitentiary in Rawlins suffers from a sinking foundation, cracking walls and ceilings, and flooding from both a failing roof and broken, badly-installed pipes.

In 2011, just 10 years into its planned 50-year lifespan, structural problems were already occurring so regularly at the prison that officials with the Wyoming Department of Corrections set up a program to monitor them. By 2016, the situation had deteriorated to the point that 525 prisoners were restricted to their cells for 42 hours so malfunctioning doors could be fixed.

An October 2017 report in the Casper Star-Tribune listed problems reported by staff at the facility. Cracks cover windows like spider webs. Doors cannot be latched and emergency door alarms fail to sound. Telephone lines get cut or crushed, and water leaks into an electrical room. At least one office is unoccupied due to safety concerns. As employees watched one day, a crack in a wall expanded by more than a foot in less than seven minutes.

But Wyoming needs the prison’s 682 beds, so to keep the facility operating, staff make daily repairs. They shave doors, prop up ceilings with poles, build ramps across cracked floors and stabilize crumbling walls with two-by-fours. As a result, Warden Michael Pacheco said the building was safe. But, he noted, it may not be for long if major repairs are not made.

“We will keep that thing operational until we can’t anymore,” Pacheco stated. “But a decision has to be made.”

The decision is whether to fix the prison or build a new one. The costs are significant either way. A task force that reviewed the structural problems and recommended repairs estimated the cost at $125 million. According to the Associated Press, Wyoming prison officials have estimated it would take $160 million to build a new facility.

State lawmakers appropriated $7.5 million for emergency repairs in August 2017. They also recommended that Governor Matt Mead approve additional funding to fix some of the more pressing issues. State Rep. Bob Nicholas highlighted the temporary nature of the legislative action.

“This is a mechanism to take care of the immediate problems,” he said. “We may be back here doing this again next year.”

The situation at the state penitentiary is somewhat ironic: The previous maximum-security institution it replaced was abandoned just 20 years into its occupancy, on orders from the U.S. Department of Justice, after inspectors found structural issues stemming from unstable ground and poor drainage. While the building site for a replacement prison was deemed suitable, recommendations aimed at avoiding similar problems were ignored.

Now state officials are asking the question: Who’s responsible?

Attorney General Peter Michael said his office was investigating “potential claim issues.” An engineer from the firm that estimated repair costs at the Rawlins penitentiary hinted that outsourcing management of the original building project to a private company might be partly to blame.

“It appears that there was an incentive for the third party to keep costs down and expedite construction,” John Lund, of Martin/Martin, told lawmakers on the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC). “I think the state lost some oversight when they did that.”

State Senator Stephan Pappas said that in the future, the state must have more oversight over construction projects such as the Rawlins facility.

“We need to find a way that architects who designed the project are involved in oversight of the project through the entire construction phase,” said Pappas. “We need to involve structural engineers and geotechnical engineers and we need to have on-site people. And I think in the past the state has really cut corners when it comes to construction oversight.”

In October 2017, State Construction Department representative Delbert Mc­Omie appeared before the JAC to report on progress with the limited repairs that had been funded. He described a list of additional problems discovered during the repair process, including roof leaks and failing pipes that were not installed according to original plans.

“We should never build a building again on soil like this because we don’t have the level of competency to ensure that pipes are put together,” remarked state Rep. Albert Sommers, who sits on the JAC. 



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