Wyoming Corrections Chief: $85M to Fix Rawlins Prison

Wed March 16, 2016 - West Edition

Fixing structural problems at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins will cost $85 million, the state’s corrections chief told state lawmakers Feb. 9.
Fixing structural problems at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins will cost $85 million, the state’s corrections chief told state lawmakers Feb. 9.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) Fixing structural problems at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins will cost $85 million, the state's corrections chief told state lawmakers Feb. 9.

That $85-million price tag is nearly as much as it cost to build the entire prison 15 years ago. Several lawmakers said they were shocked by the figure. Officials said it would cost $160 million to build a new prison from scratch.

The prison issue comes as the state is suffering a downturn in energy revenues and lawmakers are casting about to find hundreds of millions a year to continue the state's school construction program.

“If I had an opportunity to build a new building for $160 million, and know that it was done right, and take advantage of all current technologies and all current cost saving measures, I would spend $160 million to build a new building before I would spend $85 million to try to salvage a lost asset,” Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said.

Robert Lampert, Corrections Department director, briefed state lawmakers in Cheyenne on the estimated cost to replace the prison's cracking walls and floors and make other necessary repairs.

“When the facility was constructed, it wasn't constructed exactly to design,” Lampert told members of the Joint Appropriations Committee. He said after the meeting that the state hasn't determined whether it will take legal action.

The troubled Rawlins prison replaced an earlier prison nearby called the North Facility that the state had to abandon because of similar structural problems.

The Joint Appropriations Committee endorsed Lampert's request for $7 million in the coming fiscal year to protect a room that holds the core of the prison's electrical system and a gymnasium roof. The committee also is calling for an additional $13.5 million to add 144 new beds to the state's medium-security prison in Torrington — space that could be critical if the state needs to rotate inmates out of Rawlins to accommodate repairs.

“The most critical need is for that electrical room,” committee member Rep. Donald E. Burkhart Jr., R-Rawlins, said. “Without that electrical room, you don't have security — and I don't want the inmates showing up on my doorstep.”

Engineer John S. Lund briefed Gov. Matt Mead and other statewide elected officials in January about structural problems at the prison. Lund said the Rawlins prison remains structurally safe for staff and inmates but said that could change in coming years unless the state addresses the problems.

It will be necessary to demolish and replace interior walls and floor slabs as well as perform extensive work on the building's foundation, Lund said. All mechanical, electrical and security systems affected by the replacement of the interior walls and slabs will also have to be replaced, he said.

Nicholas said that he's shocked by the $85 million repair estimate. He said he had voted as a young lawmaker to approve construction of the Rawlins prison relying on promises from engineers and architects that the problems that plagued the North Facility wouldn't be repeated in the new building.

Nicholas, who also has served on the committee overseeing ongoing renovation of the Wyoming Capitol, said he intends to introduce a bill in the ongoing legislative session that would merge the state offices that oversee school capital construction with the capital construction office at the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information.

His bill would create a new, cabinet-level post to oversee state construction projects, Nicholas said.

“We simply have to get a better skill set and a better team to make sure that the facilities that we build are brought in on-budget, are brought in on time, and that the final product will last the life span for which we made the initial investment,” he said.

Before the state commits money to try to repair the Rawlins prison, Nicholas said the state needs to analyze the expected costs against the expected service life of the building and other expenses. He said he has asked the Corrections Department to analyze the cost of keeping the prison in Rawlins versus locating elsewhere in the state closer to medical care and other services.