Last month, the Wyoming Department of Corrections sent 88 men from the State Penitentiary to a private prison in Mississippi. Because of staffing capacity and prison overcrowding, we have to send 88 people halfway across the country – away from their families – and Wyoming taxpayers are now lining the coffers of one of the country’s most corrupt private industries.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We shouldn’t have to ship Wyomingites out of state to a private prison simply because we cannot hire and pay corrections officers a living wage or because our prisons and jails are so full we can no longer properly care for those under state supervision. Our legislature has known this is coming. As a body, they have failed to take adequate action to ensure this did not come to pass. When political leadership fails, it is up to the people to take action.
Because of budget cuts, the Department of Corrections has not hired new corrections officers when needed and low wages have made it hard to hire even when they can. Last year, the Department gave corrections officers a raise, and the legislature funded those raises, but it hasn’t been enough to make up for what has been lost over the past seven years.
Additionally, in order to ensure adequate staffing at the State Penitentiary, corrections officers from the medium-security prison in Torrington were transferred to Rawlins. Even then, corrections officers worked overtime – and still for low pay.
Adding to the problem is over incarceration across the state. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 1,000 people are held in local jails simply because they cannot afford their bail. This amounts to nothing more than criminalizing people because they are poor and accounts for the single largest increase in incarceration rates in Wyoming, bar none.
Transporting 88 of our prisoners out of state is a clarion call for comprehensive, far-reaching criminal justice reform. We can no longer afford to pretend our prisons and jails are not overcrowded. We can no longer stand by while our political leaders do the bare minimum to address the problem – or pretend like there is no problem at all.
The Wyoming House of Representatives has consistently passed bills that would address some of these problems, but the Senate – with just as much consistency – has killed many of those bills. Even the very minimal probation and parole law passed this last legislative session was only funded for one year – hardly enough time to implement the changes, let alone judge their efficacy.
We need to change how people are held pre-trial so we are not keeping people in local jails simply because they cannot pay bail – in other words, we must stop criminalizing people because they have fallen on hard times. We need to update property crime laws to bring them into this decade. And we need to take a hard look at low-level misdemeanors and felonies and, where possible to still ensure public safety, change those laws to ensure we are not putting people behind bars simply because there is a law in place that says they should be there.
If the past five years are any indication, the Legislature is not going to solve this problem without significant public pressure. We cannot afford to wait any longer. The time for pressure is now.