Wyoming PBS - Capitol Outlook Week Two (2016)
Director Bob Lampert, Wyoming Department of Corrections, Web Extra
Feb. 19, 2016 - CHEYENNE, WY
Craig Blumenshine: Bob Lampert has been the director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections since 2003. He has over 40 years’ experience in corrections and there are issues that the department is facing and we wanted to visit with Director Lampert. Thank you for joining us on Capitol Outlook.
Bob Lampert: My pleasure.
Craig Blumenshine: A week and a half ago or so I visited with the governor and I asked him about the cost for repairs of the prison in Rawlins. At the time he said he didn't know but it's going to be a big number and now it is a big number we've learned. In your testimony before the Joint Appropriations Committee, that number looks like it'll be about $85 million, one of the larger capital liabilities now to the state.
Tell us what the issues are in Rawlins, and how you're moving forward now.
Bob Lampert: In Rawlins, the prison is built on soils that are expansive in nature primarily. The bedrock underlying the facility is claystone, and when it gets wet it swells. There’s other pieces at the facility that are built on compactive soil that I guess settles down as time passes by and as liquid or water infiltrates it, so we have 2 competing areas of the institution.
During the initial design of the facility the design took into account that possibility of swelling soils and the design appears to have been functional, however there’s some question on whether it was actually constructed exactly as designed. What's happening is the soil underneath the institution as it's swelling is causing a displacement or some vertical displacement in terms of floors that are built on grade, just set down on the soil, moving at a rate that's different than that that’s built on sections of the institution that are established on drilled piers and grade beams.
There's still some movement detected along the grade beams. There hasn’t been any to the best of our knowledge any break in the piers or any major movement in the areas that are anchored down, but the areas that aren't anchored down are moving at a different rate which is causing some cracking on slabs, sieving in slabs, cracking in walls.
Craig Blumenshine: Those are the symptoms that you've noticed?
Bob Lampert: Correct.
Craig Blumenshine: Are there any concerns for safety as we speak today?
Bob Lampert: There’s no concerns for safety per se. Part of the movement has caused some displacement and cracking of walls and some chipping of blocks and that kind of thing, but most of that has occurred in areas that are either not overhead or in areas that aren't routinely accessed, at least by others in our maintenance staff.
Where the walls have separated have been typically in areas that are secure areas, so again no security concerns per se. There has been some movement particularly along one wall of the gymnasium and our primary electrical room for the facility so we've requested funding to move forward with the repair of the electrical room and gymnasium areas which are again the areas that are showing the most displacement and the largest potential for short term impact.
Testimony received by Martin & Martin, who was the firm that we engaged, a forensic engineering firm to determine what was going on, have indicated that they believe that we would probably get up to 5 years of service out of the building without any repairs. Again, the area showing the most displacement is the area that we want to go ahead and address because it provides the primary feed for electrical and other security systems et cetera for the facility.
Craig Blumenshine: It’s a discussion whether maybe the state needs to slow down and say, "Repairs may not be the answer. Maybe a new facility might be the answer," which would cost I’m sure a lot more, maybe twice the estimated price. Is that the estimates that you've seen roughly?
Bob Lampert: In regards to our cost at Torrington, when we built that facility the cost per bed was around $175,000 per bed. The cost of repair at this point on average is closer to $102,000 per bed at WSP.
Craig Blumenshine: And that's in Rawlins?
Bob Lampert: That's in Rawlins. We have some projections that show that the cost of replacement, particularly the high custody areas of WSP for new construction would be even more than that. The conservative, or fairly conservative estimate would be about at least 125 million, or as high as 200 million for replacement of the facility.
Craig Blumenshine: Are there savings in modern technology of prison construction that can overtime allow the state to recapture some of that additional expense?
Bob Lampert: There hasn't been a huge change in technology in regards to. You still have to design a prison to be secure and safe and account for offender movement and control, staff safety and those kind of things. There's not a huge saving in terms of technology, what is savings in term of man hours and things like electronic controls for the doors, touch screen controls rather than key access to each individual door and those kind of things.
Craig Blumenshine: What about ancillary services that are provided to prisons? I'm talking about mental health, substance abuse programs, medical care. Are there savings to be considered by a relocation of a facility to a larger metropolitan area? I'm not sure whether metropolitan really works in Wyoming, but to a larger community in Wyoming?
Bob Lampert: It is possible that you could recruit let’s say medical professionals more easily if the facility was located in Cheyenne or somewhere, but Wyoming in it of itself has difficulty attracting medical professionals, and mental health professionals, and substance abuse professionals. Our communities are struggling to meet the need at the community level in that regard. Basically we would still have to find our own service providers without impacting our already stretched resources for those communities. It may be easier to recruit them but we would be basically in competition with those communities as well for the same treatment staff.
Craig Blumenshine: I want to visit about your staffing issues in just a moment, but I want to return to budget issues, if we could, Director. Essentially your budget is looking at about a $20 million reduction, all told. Tell me the impact that you perceive with the reductions that you are looking at, even though you’ve been given a little additional authority in moving money around, this flexed authority that's been granted.
Bob Lampert: First of all, let me say that $20 million has been about the amount that we’ve reverted in the past, thanks to good stewardship on our part, but mostly due to vacancies. We’ve been unsuccessful in our intensive recruiting efforts to fill all of our positions. Our starting salary for correctional officers is about $33,000 a year, which is I guess mid-range in terms of departments of corrections around the United States, but much lower than neighboring states for example Colorado.
We’ve had difficulty and nationwide there's difficulty recruiting correctional officer staff. Because of those reversions, the agency is seen as being over-funded and therefore an easy target for any budget reductionist to take the agencies that haven't spent their money first.
Proportionately I think that we resulted or we were reduced at a higher percentage than some other agencies. With that said, the $20 million in reductions is actually $13 million and targeted in global reductions by JC, a $1.4 million additional reduction to tobacco funds and $5.5 million in funding that we agreed with the Governor to reduce before it got to JC. When you total that up that's almost the full reversion amount.
The result will be that we won't have a lot of money to flex, even though we have that flex authority. We won't have a lot more vacancy savings that won’t be making up for that 5% reduction in 900 series contract services for example, things like our substance abuse treatment, things like our sex offender treatment, things like our medical budget. We’ll have to make up those shortfalls because we’re contracted at a certain level. If we don't have the funding for that contract, we either have to renegotiate the contract and reduce the level of service, which in most cases is constitutionally required, or any additional money that we have in our budget will be used for that purpose, so there won't be a lot of flex.
Craig Blumenshine: Wyoming has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. I think that's something that you're very proud of. Are you concerned though, that without the ability to have these services, whether they’re from your staff or contract services, that that’s in jeopardy? Is that a natural result perhaps of other programs that you've seen?
Bob Lampert: We're doing our best to prioritize the services that we can provide. For example, we'll have about a $4.6 million total reduction in tobacco funding for the agency. That's going to result in us not being able to deliver outpatient substance abuse treatment. When 65% of our inmate population needs some level of treatment, the largest number of those have lower needs so those lower needs individuals won't get services, which could ultimately put a burden on the communities to provide those services or could ultimately impact our recidivism rate.
At the same time, we're trying our best to target the highest needs individuals, because they're the ones that have the highest risk upon return to the community and the biggest potential to victimize somebody else. We're trying to target that high risk population with the remaining funds.
For the most part I think we’ll be able to do that but not totally. For example, the tobacco reductions will result in about a 17% reduction in our ability to serve those high end substance abuse people who require residential substance abuse level treatment. If you reduce 17% that means that those people will be going out without that treatment.
With regards to sex offender treatment, 28% of our inmates are sex offenders. Again, they're all levels of I guess risk upon release. Again, we target the highest risk individuals. Although the program hasn't been in place a huge length of time, it seems to make a significant difference in the rate of return, about a 7% reduction in recidivism for people who take part in the program versus those that don't and even hi-
Craig Blumenshine: 7% you say?
Bob Lampert: 7%, even higher for those that successfully complete the program. For example, those who successfully complete the program we have not had any return for a new sex crime that have completed the program compared to about 55% of those sex offenders who subsequently had a felony violation for a sex crime. We're concerned about victimization in the future as well.
We want to make sure that those high risk populations are addressed. We'll adjust our resources to address those with the highest risk. Unfortunately, that means that those with the lower level of risk and even to the level of moderate-high risk won't get services and will potentially carry that issue forward with them back to the community.
Craig Blumenshine: What did your planning tell you about the number of inmates you're going to be responsible for in the next 3 years, the next 5 years, the next 10 years?
Bob Lampert: Our population projection is based on current public policy. If current public policy didn't change at all and we continued to incarcerate at the rate that we are, then we would need about 160 more beds by the year 2022 at the latest.
Craig Blumenshine: That's in addition to the 144 beds that have been approved already?
Bob Lampert: The 144 beds are being brought on board early in order to address potential displacement from WSP.
Craig Blumenshine: And that's in Torrington?
Bob Lampert: That's in Torrington. In effect, what that 144 beds will keep us even during any period of repair at WSP or replacement of WSP in Rawlins, so that we won't necessarily have to displace inmates out of state. There's a burden that comes to families and the inmates as they go out of state. They’re not as successful. We provide a lot more programming than most states that rent beds and our recidivism rate in state was about 12% better that those that were housed out of state when we were doing that.
We feel that it's important to keep those individuals in state where they’re close to their family, close to their communities that they’ll be reintegrating into. 98% of them are going to be coming back into our communities, so we think it's important to keep them in state as much as possible. That's why we're moving forward with the building of Torrington at this time.
Originally we thought we would have to build Torrington by 2015 an additional 144 beds, but we had some additional investments through the legislature and things like split sentencing and Adult Community Corrections placement and some additional authority for jail sanctions, additional funding for jail sanctions for people who violate the conditions of their probation or parole. Those investments allowed us to go to 2020 or possibly as far as 2022 without those additional beds. Now because of the pressure on WSP and the uncertainty of whether all those beds will remain functional for the years to come, we need those additional beds to absorb that population.
Craig Blumenshine: Senate File 48 being considered in this session also potentially can reduce your pressure on prison beds. Elaborate if you would.
Bob Lampert: Senate File 48 addresses several alternatives to incarceration. For example, it allows for people who violate the conditions of supervision due to substance abuse, rather than being returned to prison as a revocation to serve out the remainder of their sentence, they can be placed in jails for a period of 90 days and receive intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment funded by the Department of Corrections, or they can be returned to prison for a limited period of 90 to 180 days specifically for substance abuse treatment.
Also it would limit for first time offenders who don't have a new felony being returned or sent to prison, would limit the length of time for both probationers and parolees. They could come back to prison before they have to be reinstated on probation or parole. It would expand the use of existing alternatives to incarceration such as split sentencing and …
Craig Blumenshine: And this is a bill you support?
Bob Lampert: It is.
Craig Blumenshine: Return now to the impact the department is facing with its inability to recruit corrections officers. What are the solutions? Are there solutions? It's been an issue for the department for not just this year but for years and years. What are your thoughts today on moving forward to better increase your staffing levels?
Bob Lampert: Well we've had an aggressive recruiting campaign last [inaudible 00:16:46]. The legislature authorized the agency to retain up to $1.6 million of vacancy savings specifically for the purpose of recruiting. We've engaged a professional recruiting and marketing firm. That piece of the project is just now getting up and running.
We also authorized referral bonuses for any existing staff who refer a new employee, they get a bonus paid out over a period of 3 years, so they're also trying to help us retain those staff. For WSP only it includes a recruitment bonus of $5,000 paid over 3 years, where the new correctional officers come into WSP who stay for a 3-year-period would get a total of $5,000 on top of their regular salary.
All those initiatives are moving forward and are seeming to start coming to fruition at this time.
Craig Blumenshine: You testified that though you are concerned about morale that there's a lot of stress involved for folks who work a lot of overtime. Well, do you perceive that success in recruiting is going to offset success with budget stress that you're facing?
Bob Lampert: Well again, the total targeted budget reduction through the work up of the Joint Appropriations Committee and during budget markup was to take the equivalent of $5 million in positions. That removal probably won't have much impact on staff morale. However, if we don't have the ability to continue to recruit and hire the remaining vacancies, staff who have been working hard on the hope that we would be addressing their concerns and bring more help their way, we may lose some of those.
I have to say that in my 42 years of correctional experience, I've never met a group of more dedicated and hardworking corrections professionals than I have in Wyoming. The officers and agents that are on the ground doing the work are making a successful day in and day out. They work hard and they work overtime, sometimes not voluntarily, generally it is, but occasionally we have to require them to stay over.
They do it with the same spirit that they come to work the first day after the day off. They are true professionals and the state owes them an obligation. That's why I'm concerned that if we don't at least offer them the feasibility or the possibility that relief is coming their way, that they'll eventually burn out and we don't want to lose those high quality staff.
Craig Blumenshine: Director Lampert, it's been a pleasure to visit with you on Capitol Outlook. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Bob Lampert: Thank you.