Taskforce to oversee WSP finalized
Speaker Brown: Taskforce ‘won’t consider’ moving prison
By Chad Abshire
RAWLINS — The 13-member taskforce created by Senate File 91 to address structural problems at the Wyoming State Penitentiary has been finalized, with the House Speaker adding the state won’t even consider moving the prison out of Rawlins.
Kermit Brown, R-Albany, who practiced law in Rawlins for 20 years, said the prison “Isn’t going anywhere, without a constitutional amendment passed by majority of votes in the entire state.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to consider having it anywhere other than Rawlins, like the constitution states. It says near Rawlins. I don’t see anything coming out of the taskforce that would dispute that at all.”
The taskforce, made up of five members from the House and Senate, as well as three citizens chosen by Gov. Matt Mead, “shall study and make recommendations for solutions related to building deficiencies” at WSP, the bill’s language stated.
Only one legislative member hails from Carbon County, that being Rep. Don Burkhart, R-Rawlins. He’s joined by James Byrd, D-Laramie; Dan Laursen, R-Park; David Miller, R-Fremont; and Brown, who serves as chairman of the House members.
The Senate members are chaired by Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan. Other members include Eli Bebout, R-Fremont; John Hastert, R-Sweetwater; Stephan Pappas, R-Laramie; and Jeff Wasserburger, R-Campbell/Converse.
House members were chosen by Brown, the House speaker, while Senate members were selected by Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Albany.
Members of the public include Sinclair Police Chief Jeff Sanders, Bank of Commerce President Copper France and Todd Peterson, Regional President of Pinnacle Bank in Torrington.
Peterson said he did not submit his name, but rather was “solicited” by the governor’s office. Mostly in the dark regarding the taskforce, Peterson said he was “not in any position to comment” regarding the taskforce or the prison.
However, he did say he was approaching it without any preconceived notions.
According to the state legislature’s website, quite a few members of the taskforce have some background in issues the prison is currently facing, something that Brown touched on.
“That taskforce is all engineers,” he said. “We have every engineer in the legislature except one, on the taskforce.”
On the state’s website, Miller’s occupation is listed as geologist/mineral exploration, Bebout is listed as having experience in engineering, Pappas is named as an architect and Laursen is listed as being part of the Hydrographer State Engineers Office.
Brown said all but three members of the taskforce have some experience in engineering, which is likely to be helpful. The bill states that the taskforce must also “review the feasibility of repairing or adding to the current penitentiary, construction of a new penitentiary in Rawlins and relocation of all or a portion of the penitentiary population to an existing new facility in another location in the state.”
Current estimates have repairs to the prison priced at approximately $80 million, with a new facility carrying a price tag of close to $170 to $200 million.
“We have a different situation because of where it is,” Brown said of the prison. “It’s not the greatest site in the world, but a lot of things factored in — its proximity to the highway, the new road there, the state owned the land. There were reasons the state chose to build there.
“It’s not ideal from a construction point of view, but might have been, with other things factored in,” he said.
With a deadline of Oct. 1, Brown said he “hope(s) to figure out, to write a report,” to the Joint Appropriations Committee and the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee, of the taskforce’s findings.
“We’ll go through history of North unit (to) see if we can determine where the state went wrong,” he said. “And then go through history of the South unit and figure out what happened and where the state went wrong.”
With the taskforce’s work, Brown said he wants to “tell the Legislature that this taskforce believes it can make repairs or not, can build another one in the area, or abandon it and go somewhere else.”
And going somewhere else doesn’t mean going far away, Brown said.
“If I had to go somewhere, would go to north side where the landfill is,” he said. If it was suitable for the landfill, it (likely) won’t have water table problems like where the North and South units are.”
Along with its findings, Brown said the taskforce would make some recommendations of design work, the people needed and “what kind of precautionary measures we have to take in respect to construction and construction oversight, especially if we’re going to stay down south of town.”
But right now, it’s unclear.
“I don’t know what the answer’s going to be,” Brown said.
The first meetings are set for June 2-3 at the Rawlins High School auditorium, followed by a June 23-24 gathering at the Jeffrey Center. Neither date has times yet, but if it were up to Brown, “we’d start early and end late.”