CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming lawmakers must decide whether to repair the crumbling state prison in Rawlins or spend even more to build a new facility.
Shifting soils have caused cracking in the prison’s walls. A recent engineering report states options range from spending $65 million to repair the existing prison, which opened only about 15 years ago south of Rawlins, to spending $195 million to build a new one.
House Speaker Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said Monday he believes the state should cut its losses and build a new prison north of Rawlins. Brown is co-chairman of a legislative committee that will issue a report on the prison after a meeting in early October.
“I just feel like we’ve got to get out of there,” Brown said. “We’re painted into a corner down there in that unstable soil, and a bad location.”
Brown said the soil is more stable at a possible construction site north of Rawlins. He said the state could continue to use laundry and kitchen facilities at the existing prison south of Rawlins for a while after it opens new cell blocks at the northern location.
Completing planning and environmental assessment work at a site north of Rawlins may be complicated by the existence of a historic trail and the need to use federal lands, Brown said.
The need to address the prison issue comes as Wyoming faces declining energy revenues. Gov. Matt Mead this summer alerted state department directors to prepare for budget cuts when the Legislature convenes early next year.
Brown, who’s leaving the Legislature at the end of this year, said the state may have to consider issuing bonds to cover the new prison construction. “That might get it down to a number on an annual basis we can handle, but it’s going to be tough,” he said.
Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, is co-chairman with Brown of the legislative panel considering the prison issue. He said Monday he will wait for a briefing at next month’s meeting before deciding how he thinks the state should proceed.
However, Burns said the timing of the prison issue coming as the state faces a financial downturn leaves lawmakers “in a pickle.”
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. A state consultant has concluded 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.
Mead recently said he would favor investing in a new prison.