Prison task force meets in Rawlins

Rawlins Daily Times, Trudy Balcom Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, listens to testimony during the first day of the Legislature’s prison task force. Burkhart said some of the answers he was getting, “frankly, they are a little evasive.”

Rawlins Daily Times, Trudy Balcom
Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, listens to testimony during the first day of the Legislature’s prison task force. Burkhart said some of the answers he was getting, “frankly, they are a little evasive.”

By David Louis

RAWLINS — With the call to order issued shortly after at 8 a.m. Thursday, the 13-member prison taskforce created by the State Legislature began hearing its first day of testimony regarding the history and potential solutions to fix the structurally compromised Wyoming State Penitentiary.

Bob Kiser, Wyoming Department of Administration and Information Construction Management project manager, summarized the timeline and information compiled from more than 60 boxes of background and historical documents.

Kiser’s report including a litany of nearly 30 state agencies, individuals, contractors, design professionals and bonding companies involved in the planning and construction of the more than $40 million facility spanning various phases which began in 1998.

The cracks begin to show

Of keen interest to committee members were the number of design teams involved in the prison and the geo-technical work Evansville-based Terracon Consultants Inc. preformed.

“There were numerous geo-technical reports that were done on the site,” Kiser said. “The south facility site appears to have had 23-test borings done with differing results, differing types of rock and soil to a depth of 30 feet. A couple of them encountered ground water not immediately on the day of drilling, but subsequent days there would be water noted in the bottom of the hole.”

The prison remained largely unaffected until December 2011 when “minor” cracking — localized to a gymnasium wall — was reported by WSP staff, prompting Construction Management to bring in an engineer to assess the situation.

“His suggestion was to continue to monitor the crack to see if it got any worse and we continued to do so through the next year into 2012,” Kiser said. “The crack got a little bigger so we again had the engineer come back and look at it. He deemed the area was structurally sound but to keep monitoring the crack.”

As part of the expanding efforts to determine what was happening at WSP, Terracon returned to the prison in August 2012 to conduct more boring samples without anything “alarming” detected.

“As we discussed boring these samples the problem became more into focus,” Kiser said. “We saw a little bit of elevated soil moisture and we knew there was expansive soils in there. At that point we started to formulate different theories as to what was going on.”

The first suspect, Kiser said, was thought to be improper surface water drainage around the facility. Although mitigation measures were undertaken to improve drainage, WSP staff soon noticed more cracking.

Cut to the chase’

Midway through Kiser’s recap of the timeline Committee Chairman Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, asked him to “cut to the chase.”

“Who was the architect of record? Who signed off on all of the paper request that were made. Who was doing the onsite inspection? Was it the state, was it the engineers, was it Terracon? Who was it? I think this cuts to the real issue here, which is how come this didn’t work?” Brown asked.

“If we’re going to make any sort of recommendation to the legislature about future construction we need to know why this didn’t work,” he said. “Where was the breakdown? In the end, these are the questions we’d really like to have answered.”

When Mel Muldrow, the Department of Administration and Information, Construction Management administrator attempted to explain the lack of substantive information, noting the “volumes and volumes of information,” only now are they starting to “glean” information as they move forward with all due speed.

Brown pressed the issue.

“Why did it fail? “ he asked. “Was there inadequate supervision or was there something worse than that going on? That’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of.”

Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, sat contemplatively and listened to the explanation of the past and how mounting problems that have escalated since the initial cracks were reported.

He was unimpressed.

“We’re still collecting information, but I don’t like a lot of the answers I’m getting. Frankly they are a little evasive, some of them,” Burkhart said.

“I see some of the same contractors working on this who worked on the North Facility,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing to me — you fail in one place, lets keep the same people and do the same thing in another place and we expect better results.

“I see a lot of excuses that we couldn’t find reports. If there is anything Wyoming does well is to archive stuff. We save everything and I think they ought to find the reports a lot easier.” Burkhart said.

The issues continue

Although some of the information on design and construction was not presented during the first day of testimony, by spring of 2015 more problems arose in the Pen, including concrete buckling, additional cracking and issues with the prison’s electrical system.

“In 2011, we did not see the amount of distress that we see now. It progressed fairly rapidly in 2013 and 2014. In hindsight, in 2011 with the minor cracking it did not appear to be anything more than normal building settling. We did not see huge amounts of movement or cracking until approximately two years later,” Kiser said.

“It appears at that time, no matter what we would have done, if we would have went in we probably wouldn’t have known the extent of the problem if we tried to correct that on a localized basis,” Kiser said. “It surely would have been lower cost, but I do think it was something systemic that has moved throughout the facility.”

Doug Shope, former facility operations manager for the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), said along with the project suffering from the lack of a dedicated general contractor, it also suffered from corporate knowledge being passed along when management of construction operations shifted from the DOC to the Department of Administration and Information (A&I).

“We were already at 10 percent design with that facility before it was handed off to A&I to take over and start to manage … but the continuity of a project that starts years before and then all of a sudden you terminate all of that knowledge and hand it off to another entity to manage, it doesn’t work very well,” Shope said.

Accountability and cost

One shared concern voiced by several of the committee members was, regardless of how it happened, would anybody be held accountable.

“That’s one thing I don’t think we will get,” Burkhart said. “I don’t think anyone will stand up and say they were responsible. I don’t think we’re going to see that and that will be very frustrating for the committee. Still, we need to figure out what went wrong and why, so that we don’t repeat that again.”

While still early in the process of determining whether or not to spend nearly $84 million on renovations or more than $170 million on new construction, some committee members were adamant not to waste time on fixing the South Facility.

Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, also strongly objected to putting up the more than $83 million to renovate.

“To me it’s proven to be a bad location with the North Facility and all the problems it had and then to place the South Facility in the same vicinity was a very poor decision,” said Miller.

As a geologist by training, Miller added, “I don’t understand that at all. This isn’t rocket science. It’s really simple.”

Even with aggressive mitigation measures at WSP, Miller anticipates the issues would continue.

“The amount of infrastructure you have to put in to try to prevent that would be enormous and obviously they didn’t do enough before. They put all of these engineered things in, but it didn’t work because the soil is so damn bad,” Miller said.

“Now we wait and listen to more consultants to tell us what to do to fix it,” he said. “I think we need to wash our hands of the whole thing.”

While advocating building new, Miller hesitates on moving WSP from Rawlins.

“I don’t hear any movement on leaving Rawlins,” he said. “And being able to keep some of the prison open I think is going feasible. Maybe one unit is really bad and we’ll be able to keep the majority of the inmates at the facility for a five year period while something else is done like maybe construction on the north side of town.

“We learned our lesson with the 1980 prison (the North Facility) and the fact that we built the new one on the same location is the fault of whoever our advisors were and the consultants we hired,” he said. “They clearly should have advocated moving to a different location. To me they should have been liable.”

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