Failed Platte County Jail Generator Leaves Deputies Vulnerable In Power Outage

Platte County has been awarded $150,000 in emergency money to buy a new backup generator for its jail. Without it during an outage, deputies can’t use cameras, communicate or control locks on the cell doors.

August 08, 20234 min read

The Platte County Sheriff's Office and jail in Wheatland, Wyoming.
The Platte County Sheriff's Office and jail in Wheatland, Wyoming. (Google)

The Platte County Detention Center has a generator that won’t provide backup power in the event of a power outage.

The county sought nearly $150,000 in emergency money from the state for a new one, which the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) voted to approve. 

While outages in Wheatland are rare, without backup power, the jail would be in a serious predicament. 

“If you’re one of the two deputies on duty, and there’s 60-plus inmates, and you have no power for the automatic locks, lights or cameras — that’s an emergency,” Platte County Clerk Malcolm Ervin told Cowboy State Daily. 

Useful Life

The county applied for two grants totaling $146,725 through the Mineral Royalty Grant program to buy and install a backup generator and a new electrical control system for the jail. 

While the SLIB members voted to approve the funding, the SLIB staff analysis had recommended against it. The analysis questioned if the request fit the definition of emergency for funding through the Mineral Royalty Grant Funding. 

Elizabeth Blackwell, grants and loans manager for SLIB, explained that the staff analysis thought the request stemmed from deferred maintenance of the equipment and a failure on the county’s part to plan for the end of the old backup generator’s useful life. 

The generator is 22 years old, which is two years past its useful life. It failed in January, and the county’s applications stated that outages in Wheatland are rare. 

“Generally, emergencies are things you can't predict or plan for,” Blackwell said. “The end of the useful life of an asset is something you can predict and plan for.”

Loosey Goosey 

Secretary of State Chuck Gray asked if the program standards have evolved over time to raise the bar of what fits an emergency. 

“When I was a legislator, they were saying it [the grant fund] was used pretty liberally,” Gray said. 

Gov. Mark Gordon said the program did have a lower bar in the past, and entities were making a lot of emergency requests. As an example, he said one community hadn’t cleaned out its sewage system for about 20 years and requested emergency funding to address it. 

“The program was pretty loosey goosey,” Gordon said. 

High Bar

At Thursday’s SLIB meeting, Ervin pushed back against the analysis finding that the request didn’t fit the definition of an emergency. 

“If we were asking for the library, the courthouse itself or public health, we would agree that these [requests] do not meet that high bar,” Ervin said. 

The jail facility, he explained, has 60 inmates who lose heating and cooling, the ability to prepare food and the ability to support inmates on oxygen if the lights go out. 

“One thing people forget about is that when someone is in jail, they’re in our care. We’re tasked with making sure they’re healthy,” Ervin said. 

This is all in addition to how deputies’ safety is compromised without backup power. 

Platte County Sheriff David Russell told Cowboy State Daily that without electricity, deputies lose the ability to control locks in the pods and communications throughout the jail. 

The deputies “rely heavily on the camera systems to see if those inmates are at the doors, ready to jump them when they go in,” Russell said at the SLIB meeting. 


Ervin also testified that the county had not deferred maintenance on its systems and all routine maintenance has been done, he said. 

The generator has only 264 hours on it, though it is 22 years old. 

“I drive a 2004 Ford, but it has only 69,000 miles on it. Because it’s 20 years old, does that negate it being a good, reliable vehicle?” Ervin said. 

Therefore, he said, it failed long before the end of its useful life. 

Ervin didn’t fault the staff analysis and commended the SLIB staff for putting so much analysis into vetting the program requests.

In an interview, he said he was grateful that the board agreed to fund the request. 

Ervin wasn’t certain how long it would be before the county jail has the new generator installed and ready to use, but said the supplier didn’t seem to think it would be very long. 

Russell said until then, the county can use its current backup generator for brief periods should they experience an outage before the new generator is online. 

“It’s limping,” Ervin said.

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