SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A new men’s prison might not solve all the problems state officials and lawmakers have seen at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
That’s the message Eric Ollila hopes people keep in mind as plans for a new men’s prison facility continue to move forward. The South Dakota Department of Corrections announced last week it plans to buy more than 300 acres of land in rural Lincoln County for a modern-day prison.
Ollila, executive director and lobbyist for the South Dakota State Employees Organization, said a newer and safer building will be good, but he also wants continued focus on the employees working at the prisons in South Dakota.
“A building doesn’t run itself, even a modern prison is not going to run itself,” Ollila told KELOLAND News. “You’re going to have to have employees. They’re going to have to feel safe and you’re gonna have to have the workforce to put into that prison.”
There are more than 1,300 inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and Jameson Annex, according to the most recent data from the DOC. It also takes hundreds of state employees to monitor those inmates, a job that comes with risks.
According to a presentation to state lawmakers, the DOC has more than 800 full-time employees with more than 500 needed for security positions throughout the state.
Ollila said there are more than 400 working in Sioux Falls and he doesn’t believe they were consulted with any decision regarding the location of a new workplace. He said DOC employees knew there would be a new prison and knew it was going to be within 20 miles of their current location.
“I don’t believe they go into their job with the idea that they’re going to have a say on where a new prison is going to be built,” Ollila said. “But at the same time, they probably need some certainty that their job is going to be there.”
Ollila said state officials should have allowed more formal feedback from current employees in the decision behind a new location. He also said relocation assistance should be provided for any current employees that might be impacted.
“Some are going to be closer to a new workplace and some are going to be further,” Ollila said. “The state would know that and they know how many employees are going to be affected by a move of that nature. If we have employees coming from Brookings or Mitchell, they’re likely to be affected.”
KELOLAND News reached out to the DOC about if current employees were consulted on the new location and if there was any formal process for employees to offer input on the decision. Any response will be added to this story.
In a news release Friday, DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko said the land in Lincoln County, near the intersection of 278th Street and 477th Avenue, will keep the state prison close to an available workforce.
“This site is the best choice for a modern correctional facility,” Wasko said in a news release.
Workforce a problem at old State Pen
In a presentation to state lawmakers, Wasko showed the State Penitentiary building was 176% over capacity with 488 more male offenders than was deemed safe by recommendations from the American Correctional Association.
Built in 1881, the State Pen facility saw the most security staff vacancies and departures of any DOC facility in 2022. Higher starting pay and pay increases were approved to help combat high turnover and vacancies.
“It’s unsafe and it’s inefficient to staff,” Wasko said about the State Pen on Feb. 22. “It’s got the highest vacancy rate and the highest overtime and double-time expenses as well.”
Ollila said people who work at the state prison are focusing on a career.
“It’s not just a job for these people. They have a retirement system built into it; they have health care. It’s not just something that lawmakers or policymakers should just ignore,” Ollila said. “Those things continue and they need to be thought of. You can’t say a new prison is going to fix those things.”
The DOC showed state lawmakers projections on future prison populations will be up nearly 20 percent in 10 years with a projected male inmate population of 3,643 by 2041 and a female population of 653. The state is planning to break ground a new women’s prison in Rapid City.