Tough to evaluate other penitentiary location options without transparency

October 31, 2023 4:42 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)

South Dakota is finally moving forward on the long overdue replacement of its men’s penitentiary near downtown Sioux Falls. It announced a new site and a timeline for the move. However, the process for selecting a replacement site has raised questions and concerns from the public.

Downtown Sioux Falls has changed

In recent decades, downtown Sioux Falls has grown into a popular place to live, work and play. Inevitably, some features of historical downtown no longer seem appropriate there. Downtown would be better off today if we no longer had a slaughterhouse, penitentiary and railroad switching yard nearby. We usually don’t bring up those legacy features of our city center when we brag about it.

When the decision was made in the mid- to late-19th century to create a university in Dakota Territory, community promoter Richard Pettigrew wished it could be in Sioux Falls. But as a political realist, he recognized that it would be located near the then population center in the southeast corner of the territory. So, he worked on getting Sioux Falls the next best alternative.

He wanted the penitentiary in Sioux Falls to provide stable jobs in the community. It worked. But over a century later, the facility has aged and the need for a new location has been evident for a long time.

Why surprise the public?

Earlier this year, the state announced it would build a new penitentiary on farmland it owns in Lincoln County. The announcement apparently surprised the public, especially those owning property in the area of the site, as well as public officials.

If I had been advising the state on its site selection process, I would have recommended a transparent and open-minded approach. The state could have announced its intention to replace the penitentiary, publicly shared the criteria for evaluating potential sites, and invited proposals from communities across the state.

Instead, the state made its pick with no advance notice, and so far, minimal information has been released. Both the site and the process used to pick it have raised concerns. Many neighbors, including local officials, have expressed an interest in learning more. And now some legislators have started asking questions.

Other options

There may be communities along the Interstate 29 corridor or within an hour of Sioux Falls on I-90 that would enthusiastically welcome the facility, just as Sioux Falls and Richard Pettigrew did decades ago. It offers the prospect of stable government jobs for the next century, which is a potentially enticing opportunity for areas dealing with stagnant or declining populations.

The state has picked a nice piece of farmland it owns in Lincoln County. It is a valuable state asset, characterized by its high-quality agricultural potential and its future prospects as a development site within the metro Sioux Falls area. Given the lack of information and the hardships this location might impose on neighbors, it is only natural that questions have been raised about whether there might be more suitable locations.

Selling the Lincoln County land could potentially generate significant revenue, possibly helping offset some of the costs of constructing the new facility. And while we’re at it, selling the old facility might also help defray costs of the new prison. The state has indicated it plans to keep the old building, but that may not be in the best interests of the state or the community.

Maybe there is a less valuable and less controversial location available. Or maybe this Lincoln County site is the best one available. It’s hard to know without more transparency.

This commentary is adapted with permission from a blog post.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joe Kirby
Joe Kirby

Joe Kirby, of Sioux Falls, formerly led Western Surety Company and worked as an accountant and lawyer. He helped lead a successful effort to modernize Sioux Falls city government in the 1990s and continues to advocate for government reform. He blogs at