State’s selection of prison site upsets Lincoln County neighbors

Some landowners near future penitentiary also targeted for carbon pipeline

By: - October 6, 2023 1:50 pm
The site selected for the new South Dakota State Penitentiary in Lincoln County. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The site selected for the new South Dakota State Penitentiary in Lincoln County. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The multimillion-dollar replacement for the South Dakota State Penitentiary is set to appear on farm ground south of Harrisburg in Lincoln County. 

County commissioners have known that the site was under consideration for at least six weeks. Some state lawmakers who represent the area have known for longer.

Sarah Ulmer, who lives half a mile from the site with her husband and 16-month-old daughter, learned about her next potential neighbor about 24 hours before the state finalized the appraisal on the land Friday morning.

The South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, as seen on Jan. 9, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
The South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, as seen on Jan. 9, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The cropland is already state-owned by the Office of School and Public Lands. The South Dakota Board of Appraisal set a value of $7.9 million for the two tracts, clearing a path for transfer of the 320-acre site to the state Department of Corrections. 

The land has been leased for farming, with the proceeds used to benefit public schools. The land swap will see the money transferred from the DOC into a state trust fund whose proceeds will continue to flow to K-12 schools.

DOC officials called the site selection a win for schools and corrections.

“This sale allows us to fulfill our constitutional duty to make money for education while providing a key public safety need for the future,” Commissioner of Schools and Public Lands Brock Greenfield said in a prepared statement after the appraisal.

Neighbors react

Ulmer and her neighbors, however – who’ve spent the last year fighting a proposed carbon dioxide pipeline that would run through their land – are not pleased.

“I’ve lived here 10 years, and I’ve never feared for my safety when I’ve gone out at night,” Ulmer said. “That would be 100% out the door, knowing that that is a mile away from my home. These are murderers, rapists. These aren’t just somebody that smoked some pot or had a few traffic violations.”

There’s been no notice given from the state on the site’s possible future, Ulmer said. She and her neighbors around the intersection of 477th Avenue and 277th Street’s gravel roads are concerned about land values, traffic and the safety of their children.

Ulmer recalls one fugitive alert in her time on the acreage, which she said carried a warning about old barns and outbuildings as potential hiding places.

“We’re all just in absolute shock and fear, especially having just gone through all this pipeline stuff for the last year and a half,” Ulmer said. “I’m exhausted by that, but I am horrified. I can’t believe that they would think that this is far enough away from homes.”

The pipeline project from Summit Carbon Solutions, which would run through the area, was denied a permit by the Public Utilities Commission last month. Shortly thereafter, Summit officials announced a cessation of all eminent domain lawsuits against landowners. The company also said this week that it plans to re-apply for a permit.

Michelle Jensen, a neighbor to Ulmer, was among the landowners who’d been targeted with an eminent domain condemnation by the pipeline company.

The withdrawal of the condemnation action was a relief for Jensen, who purchased 63 acres of land with her husband in early 2021 and made plans for its future. The relief was short-lived, though. A call from the neighbor living immediately across 477th Street from the possible prison site came about two days ago.

“My husband and I invested everything we’ve got into this place, and this is literally going to destroy it,” Jensen said.

Lawmakers back prison project

Lawmakers set aside $383 million for the construction of a new state penitentiary last winter. The current penitentiary was built in 1881, sits in the middle of the state’s most populous city in Sioux Falls and has a linear design unfit for modern corrections.

DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko told lawmakers that “The Hill,” as the prison is colloquially known, needs to be replaced for the safety of everyone who lives and works there.

“We have had staff that have said that they don’t feel safe,” Wasko said in January. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been doing prisons for a long time, and on The Hill, I don’t feel safe.” 

On Friday, Wasko said in a press release that the site in Lincoln County is the right choice.

“This site is the best choice for a modern correctional facility that supports our state’s public safety needs, minimizes the impact on community growth, and keeps us close to available workforce,” Wasko said.

Department of Corrections Secretary Kelli Wasko speaks to graduates of a precision machining course on May 8, 2023 in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko speaks to graduates of a precision machining course on May 8, 2023, in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The process of land selection for the new 1,500-bed facility has been largely secretive, though Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken has been vocal in his desire to move it out of city limits.

The DOC, however, has expressed concerns about the feasibility of a new site, given that most of the hundreds of current prison employees on the Hill live in and around Sioux Falls. The proposed new prison site is about 15 miles from the city.

Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, said the Lincoln County site is attractive for several reasons: its proximity to the city, access to water infrastructure and its status as state-owned land chief among them.

Jensen, who said he’s been following the situation and has talked with the Governor’s Office about it, knows that the DOC had hoped for a site closer to Interstate 29. But the best offer on a suitable site from a private landowner in that area came in north of $70,000 per acre, Jensen said — roughly triple the appraised value set Friday morning.

Jensen said he’s sympathetic to the concerns of neighbors, noting there are some acreages in the rural area with nearly new homes on them. Neighbors, Ulmer among them, expressed their concerns to him Friday. Some were surprised that the state would choose an area where young families and generational farms are present.

The DOC’s issue with a further-flung site, Jensen said, is that “out in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, we don’t have a workforce.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Jim Schmidt told Sioux Falls Live this week that while he understands neighbor concerns, he sees the project as a valuable force for economic growth in the county.

Next steps

Should the DOC choose to move forward with a land swap at the price point set Friday, the cash would be transferred into the School and Public Lands Trust Fund for the benefit of South Dakota schools, Greenfield said. The money from the DOC would be managed by the South Dakota Investment Council, with the returns used for schools.

The minimum security center of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, pictured on Feb. 16, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
The minimum security center of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, pictured on Feb. 16, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The Board of Appraisal valuation, set by Greenfield and Auditor Rich Sattgast, was set at the request of the DOC, Greenfield said during Friday’s meeting.

The DOC did not respond to a request for further comment on the prison site beyond its press release. 

The agency has said that it doesn’t have plans to demolish the penitentiary, and that two newer facilities on the prison complex grounds – the maximum security Jameson Annex and community work center – would remain on the grounds. Jameson is home to death row inmates, inmates in administrative segregation for disciplinary reasons, and a mental health unit. Inmates in the work release center can leave the prison grounds for jobs.

The hulking quartzite monolith of The Hill, built eight years before South Dakota statehood, would be decommissioned.

In addition to the new men’s prison, the DOC is working to build a new women’s prison in Rapid City, on land purchased in 2022. 


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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.