- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A Wyoming legislative task force is recommending that Gov. Matt Mead approve spending $3.5 million for emergency improvements at the state prison in Rawlins.

The Task Force on State Penal Facilities voted Wednesday to request that Mead approve the money to build a new electrical services building at the prison and to make repairs to a crumbling wall.

The vote came after Robert Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, warned lawmakers that all electrical and security systems at the prison run through a single room. He said the roof is leaking and that it’s possible that the shifting elements of the building could cut cables running to the room, resulting in loss of power to the entire prison.

Lampert told the task force he recommends spending $1.6 to $2 million to construct a new modular building to house electrical and security systems.

It would take up to 72 hours to relocate inmates from the Rawlins prison in the event of a power failure, Lampert said. He said that a power failure could also lead to liabilities for the state that would make the money for the new modular building “look like pocket change.”

Another pressing problem at the state prison involves cracking in a gymnasium wall, Lampert said. He said it would cost $1.5 million to address the 30-foot, load-bearing wall.

The task force accepted Lampert’s recommendation for the emergency funding. The group also called for spending another $133,000 to retain a consultant study over the next two months that will examine options for repairing the crumbling Rawlins prison or possibly scraping it entirely and building a new prison elsewhere.

Lampert told state lawmakers earlier this year that the prison, which only opened about 15 years ago, needs $85 million in repairs. He said it would cost about twice that to build a new prison. The troubled Rawlins prison replaced an earlier prison nearby called the North Facility, also south of Rawlins, that the state had to abandon because of similar structural problems.

Both prisons were built on unstable soils, resulting in wall movement and resulting cracking of walls and floors. A consultant recently reported that foundations in the newer prison weren’t built according to specifications, allowing movement in the foundations to lift floor slabs that had been intended to move independently.

Several lawmakers said Wednesday that they don’t want to put any more state funds into prison facilities near the existing facility.

Rep. David Miller, a Republican from Riverton, said he would favor doing only minimal repairs at the existing facility, “and begin looking for a stable site for future construction somewhere down the road.”

Sen. Eli Bebout, a Republican from Riverton, said he agreed. “I’m not going to make a decision to go to a site next to it and try to make a design that’s going to work,” he said. “We’ve already done that. It didn’t work.”

House Speaker Kermit Brown, a Republican from Laramie, said after the meeting that task force members expect to meet with Mead on Friday to request approval of the funds. The Legislature set aside $7 million for work at the prison in the budget session earlier this year.

The task force is set to report recommendations on how to address problems at the prison this fall. In the long run, Brown said lawmakers are faced with a difficult decision, given the state’s deteriorating financial picture, of whether to recommend repairs at the existing prison or spending more money to build an entirely new prison.

Brown said he’s inclined to look at building new facilities north of Rawlins. He said it’s possible the state could continue to use kitchen and laundry facilities at the existing prison to serve new buildings constructed elsewhere.

Brown, who’s leaving the Legislature after this year, said he can’t speculate how the state will pay for overall prison improvements. “I can’t tell you how it’s going to be done,” he said. “It’s going to be up to a future Legislature, but it’s going to be brutal,” he said.

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