A sign for the Solem Public Safety Center in Pierre. The center is the home of the South Dakota Department of Corrections administrative offices, as well as the South Dakota Women’s Prison. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
PIERRE – In 2022, some inmates at the overcrowded women’s prison in Pierre were bunked in the gym, which closed the gym for every inmate living there.
The gym is open again, lawmakers learned Monday, but now a classroom is closed because it’s filled with overflow inmates.
Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko offered several stories about space-related shuffling during Monday’s hearing of the South Dakota Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, in one case explaining how a housing arrangement gave inmates personal space just 14 inches wide and 24 inches deep.
“We had one room that went from three inmates to six inmates to nine inmates,” said Wasko.
The proposed budget presented to appropriators Monday included details on how the DOC will manage its overflow in the next few years and what it will cost to build new facilities to serve the state’s public safety needs into the future.
For the women, the DOC needs space for low-level offenders. For the men, the need is for inmates at higher security levels – and for a safer, modern building.
The South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls holds 275 more medium- and high-security inmates than American Correctional Association guidelines recommend, and its outdated layout creates an unsafe environment for inmates and officers.
When inmates line up for meals, Wasko said there are parts of the facility – known colloquially as “The Hill” – that are so loud that “I can scream, I can yell, I can stomp on the catwalk and you will not hear me.”
“We have had staff that have said that they don’t feel safe,” said Wasko, a nurse by training who came to the DOC 10 months ago after more than two decades of correctional work in Colorado. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been doing prisons for a long time, and on The Hill, I don’t feel safe.”
The agency wants $60 million to add a 308-bed women’s prison in Rapid City to its roster of facilities. It would be located in the northeast part of the city, just southeast of the East North Street/Interstate 90 interchange, and is projected to open in 2024.
In the meantime, the DOC has contracted with the Hughes County Jail to house some female inmates, and has budgeted $2.8 million to cover the cost.
House Bill 1017 would set aside another $52 million for land purchases and design of a 1,500-bed men’s prison to replace the antiquated penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Beyond the immediate spending clause, HB 1017 would transfer $290 million into the state’s incarceration construction fund for future use.
The DOC’s finance director estimated total project costs for the men’s prison at $540 million across the life of the project, which has no official start date or location.
Cost of men’s prison questioned
The costs caught scrutiny on Monday, with some lawmakers asking Wasko to explain the upward trajectory of the cost and size of the new prisons.
On the women’s prison side, the project grew from 100 beds to 200 and then more than 300 as the DOC dug down into inmate population projections.
There were also issues with the $3.8 million land purchase.
Wasko told lawmakers that the 20 acres, purchased before she took over the DOC, has less than 15 acres of land suitable for building.
For the men’s prison, Wasko said, the DOC hopes to avoid missteps.
“We’re looking at a little bit more due diligence on the larger land purchase for House Bill 1017,” the secretary said.
Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls, wanted to know how the $52 million requested for the men’s prison would be divided between land and design.
“It’s hard for me to see the land costing more than five or $10 million, and that would leave the balance for design,” Venhuizen said. “That seems like a very high number.”
Brittni Skipper, the DOC director of finance and administration, said the land near Sioux Falls would cost $10 million. The remainder would cover design, engineering and architecture fees, Skipper said, but was “based on a preliminary total project cost of $600 million” for the penitentiary replacement.
“We have since revised that down to about $540 million,” Skipper said. “So if some of that were not used for design, it would be used for the construction.”
Location worries loom
The DOC went through all the necessary permitting for the purchase of the women’s prison land in Rapid City, Skipper said. No final site has been chosen for the penitentiary replacement project in Sioux Falls.
Both sites could be a cause for concern in their respective communities, according to lawmakers and Wasko.
Rapid City Republican Sen. David Johnson told Wasko that he’s heard several concerns about the new women’s prison during legislative public forums. Johnson asked for a map of the location because “this is getting a lot of attention in Rapid City.”
Rep. Dennis Krull of Hill City seconded that request. He doesn’t live in Rapid City, he said, but he’s familiar with the kinds of concerns that emerge from neighbors when large projects are pitched.
“There seems to be a general feel out there ‘don’t put it in my backyard,’ whether we’re talking about a slaughterhouse or a jail,” Krull said.
Wasko told lawmakers that she agrees with Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who has said he hopes the new Sioux Falls facility is out of town.
“I don’t want another prison in the middle of a metropolitan area, too,” she said.
The 1881 building would be decommissioned if the new penitentiary plan goes through, but the newer Jameson Annex and the Sioux Falls minimum security facilities would remain.
The ideal location for the new 1,500-bed facility, Wasko said, would be near enough to Sioux Falls for current employees to easily access but far enough away to draw job candidates from smaller towns.
But Wasko said the location probably wouldn’t be the primary selling point for employees.
“I think that the attractiveness of this project will be that we’ll have a state of the art correctional facility that is designed to make offender operations safer and more efficient,” she said.
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*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the DOC would decommission the state penitentiary if a replacement facility were built.
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