Cracked wall, leaky roofs
Task Force tour of prison highlights structural problems
By Trudy Balcom
RAWLINS — “You won’t need hard hats,” Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert joked.
Lampert, Wyoming State Penitentiary Warden Eddie Wilson and Deputy Warden Bob Hults offered a brief orientation to the members of the Task Force on State Penal Institutions as they prepared to tour areas of the prison where shifting walls and floors are causing damage to the building’s structure.
Wilson told the legislators that WSP houses 666 inmates and 320 staff. The prison includes some maximum-security prisoners, but also inmates at “all custody levels,” he said.
Terry Keys, facilities operations manager at the Wyoming Department of Corrections, led the tour of damaged areas. No cameras or cell phones were allowed inside the prison to document the damage.
A firsthand account
Keys offered a running commentary on cracks in separation joints in the prison’s concrete block walls, uneven floors and leaky roofs.
Keys noted that when he first toured the facility in 2011, there was nothing more serious than hairline cracks in the block walls in a few places.
As the group toured hallways, offices and mechanical rooms, he would point out cracks in walls — most were less than one-half inch, some as large as two inches; steel doors that had been “shaved” to fit where floors had heaved; safety glass windows replaced with Lexan when the glass cracked or broke due to the shifting walls or floors; and four-inch wide concrete ramps that had been installed where two floors meet, but are no longer level, so that carts of supplies can be wheeled down the hallways.
The reason for all of these problems, Keys said, was that the walls and floors had not been built with the same foundation system. Walls that are supported by a concrete beam set on piers set deep into the ground remain stable, while the adjoining floors built as slab-on-grade have been shifting, causing cracking of walls and subsequent damage to the roofs as well.
Moisture is another problem. Keys said that he has been trying to divert water that comes off of the building from snow and rain, but in many areas it gets trapped against the building. Wet soils beneath the building create more heaving of slab on grade floors.
A consulting engineer from CTL Thompson who accompanied the legislators on their tour said their test boring indicated groundwater was located about 20-23 feet below the South Unit Building.
Seeing the damages
The worst damage was located in a room housing electrical components for one portion of the structure and an adjoining gym, where inmates were playing basketball.
“This is the main room where it leaks. We’ve had the roof fixed and it is still leaking. The room is twisting and shifting,” Keys told the tour members as they inspected the cracks in the walls of the electrical room.
Keys said that the leaks also compromised the fire-retardant foam sprayed on the ceiling of the room.
Several legislators questioned whether damage to the electrical in that room could cause a security risk. Keys assured them that back-up generators would prevent that problem.
“If we lose the main feed, the generator starts in seconds, that’s what it’s programmed to do,” Keys said.
Located just outside the room was a temporary steel post, installed to help shore up the wall and ceiling next to an expansion joint. Keys called it “a central failure.”
A better look
Dressed in suits and jackets, some lawmakers nevertheless scurried up a tall step-ladder next to the steel post to peer at damage located above the dropped ceiling near the electrical room.
In the gym, one wall is blocked off with a plywood barricade, keeping inmates away from a wall where a very large diagonal crack runs from the floor to a corner of the wall.
The concrete floor had been excavated in that location so that a test hole could be bored to check on the stability of the soils beneath the building at that location.
Legislators were pleased with the tour, but not with what they found.
“This building is shame on us,” Rep. Don Burkhart said, noting that the problems that dogged the North Unit have come home to roost in the South Unit. “Same contractor, same location, same problems.”
Burkhart said he supported spending $6 million to solve the immediate problems in the gym, but said he felt that the state needed to take a longer view with regard to the prison in Rawlins.
“We want to build a 100 year prison, not come back in 30 years,” he said.
Legislators requested to see the North Unit at WSP, or at least an example of the damage that caused the structures at that unit to be abandoned. They were taken to a mechanical building housing large boiler units.
Lampert said the buildings of the North Unit would not likely withstand a “seismic event.”
Lampert told the legislators that the North Unit had to be abandoned because alkali water located in a water table about three feet below the structure corroded the supporting beams for the building rendering them unsafe.
He said the original plan was to demolish the buildings and bury the waste onsite, but the idea was nixed by the Environmental Protection Agency, for fear of contaminating groundwater.
The cost to meet EPA guidelines for demolition was estimated at $50 to $60 million — prohibitively high, Lampert said. So some of the buildings are used for storage, the rest just sit vacant.
Lampert said that periodically the DOC has revisited the issue, getting estimates for salvage and demolition, but the cost is still too high.
The legislators urged DOC officials to explore ideas for possibly selling the site to a private entity, or other solutions that might allow the state to recoup some of its loss.