Wyoming's Prison Population Grows While National Numbers Shrink

May 17, 2019

According to new statistics from the Department of Justice, the country's incarceration rate is continuing to decline. From 2007 to 2017, the U.S. prison and jail population decreased by more than 10 percent. But that's not the case in Wyoming.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its report in late April and said between 2016 and 2017 there was about a 1 percent decline in inmate population across the U.S. That's good news for most places except Wyoming, which saw a 4 percent increase during the same time period.

That's a trend the Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC) has been noticing for years.

"If you look at the trend line we have from '08 to '18 and project it to 2023, you know, it's a steadily climbing trend line," said Steve Lindly, the deputy director of the Wyoming DOC.

Lindly said from 2008 to 2018, Wyoming's prison population grew by 21 percent, or about 2 percent each year.

He added that growth has put a lot of strain on the system and the state budget.

"It clearly is a drain on a state's resources. And particularly with Wyoming facing the number of statewide budget challenges that have been going on for a few years, it's even more pertinent," he said.

That's so much growth the DOC has had to get creative with where they place inmates. Anywhere from around 45-60 inmates stay in county jails, where the state pays counties for space, which can get costly.

The DOC also has to send inmates out of state because of the lack of space. There are 29 inmates in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. In April 2018, 88 Wyoming inmates were transported to a private prison in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

Lindly said a lot of things contributed to sending the inmates to Mississippi, like ongoing construction and staffing issues at the state penitentiary in Rawlins.

"Then thirdly, taking those two things into account, then the system, the other three male facilities, they were full, too, so there was very little leeway in other facilities," he said.

Placing inmates out of state can affect their relationships their families and other important people in their lives, Lindly said.

"It clearly impacts [them] when they're out of state... particularly out of state a long way away. And so it's not an ideal option by any means," he said.

Rachel is a retired school teacher, and she's been writing to an inmate since 2014 who was in Rawlins. We're using a different name to protect her privacy.

"I really got to know this person from the letters we've written. I have packets of letters- huge packets-that we wrote back and forth for the last five years," she said.

Rachel said she's been told of the differences in prison life while he's been incarcerated in Mississippi.

"We've written a lot fewer letters and that's mainly because he's working. And before he was studying and writing and had a computer to work on. It's not as frequent but it's still honest," she said.

Rachel said the relationship she's built with the inmate is important to him. She's been able to confront him with hard questions about his past and crimes, and he's been able to share his struggles, too, which includes his time in the justice system.

"I'm also becoming concerned not just about this person but about the whole system and the lengthy sentences you give people," she said.

The problems are something the DOC is aware of, too. Deputy Director Lindly said there's been an ongoing conversation with policymakers about finding solutions. During this past legislative session, lawmakers passed four bills aimed at the corrections system. But one, in particular, may be able to help those who violate probation or parole to get rehabilitation instead of a lengthy sentence.

"[It] allows the department and the courts and the parole board some additional responses short of fully reincarcerating the person," he said.

These are options like getting substance use or mental health treatment while being in community correction centers.

Lindly said once the laws go into effect in July, it'll be a test to see if these steps will actually improve numbers. If they don't, officials predict the prison population will grow an additional 9 percent by 2023.