PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Sitting atop a bluff overlooking the Big Sioux River in northern Sioux Falls stands one of the state’s most historic buildings – the South Dakota State Penitentiary. 

Built in 1881, eight years before South Dakota was granted statehood, the state’s Department of Corrections Secretary told state lawmakers the time has come to build a new men’s prison to replace the State Penitentiary. 

As the discussion to create a new prison moves on to the House and Senate chambers through House Bill 1017, questions from lawmakers remain including what happens to the old building when it’s replaced? 

Kellie Wasko, DOC Secretary, joked that what happens to the old building has been the question of the week. Wasko also told lawmakers the decision is not in her hands, but her intention will be to decommission the building from DOC use once a new prison is built. 

“It’s not like we’re going to tear it down tomorrow or change over because this whole prison process is going to take us about five years,” Democrat Rep. Linda Duba said in a news conference Thursday in Pierre. “That is a property that would be under the Bureau of Administration. It’s a state building and I would imagine that it will sit with them and we’ll look at what is there for a possible other use for that building.”

Duba, who sits on the appropriations committee, represents District 15 in Sioux Falls where the prison is located. She said she’s been impressed with how Wasko has handled working to overhaul the state’s prison system. 

“We need to make a huge change in the way that we house our prisoners and the way that we rehabilitate them,” Duba said. “It’s not about putting somebody away. It’s about correcting their behavior and bringing them back into society.”

On Wednesday, Wasko said the Jameson Prison Annex would still be used for specialty populations like inmates in wheel chairs and severe mentally ill inmates. The Sioux Falls Minimum Center would also continue to be used. It would be used as a “reentry center,” Wasko said. 

Pheasantland Industries would move with the new State Pen, Wasko said.

HB-1017 gives the DOC power to start buying property and start a design for a new men’s prison. With a total price tag of $341 million, the bill also moves more than $200 million into a fund for future construction costs. 

The exact price of a new men’s prison won’t be known until the land and design is completed in 2023. 

Republican Rep. Will Mortenson said building prisons is the cheap part for the state. 

“Once you start filling them with a whole bunch of additional prisoners that’s the really expensive part,” Mortenson said. “These are one-time expenses that actually create on-going expenses.” 

Solving workforce challenges 

Alongside teacher pay, compensation for DOC staff has long been an issue South Dakota state government has wrestled with. In May 2022, KELOLAND News reported DOC’s large facilities had a turnover rate for staff between 30% and nearly 60%.

In January 2023, Wasko told lawmakers there were 91 vacancies at the State Penitentiary campus. This week, Wasko said the State Penitentiary has the highest vacancy rate and the highest overtime and double-time expenses. 

Mortenson said keeping an eye on the workforce makes it extra important to design and build the prison correctly in size and location. 

“If we are going to merely be shifting where some of these inmates are housed, then I would say those FTEs (full-time employees) should be shifted and not added,” Mortenson said. “If we’re looking at adding a whole bunch more capacity and putting a whole bunch more people in prison and hiring a whole bunch more people to guard them that’s a different conversation.”

Mortenson said he was under the understanding the DOC workforce would be replaced on the men’s side and added on the women’s side. 

Duba said changes continue to be made to state employee funding and DOC positions. Final decisions on state employee pay, education funding and community service funding are still to be finalized with the budget.  

“This is more than just location of the prison. The working conditions have a lot to do with it but there’s just a shift in the way that we manage corrections,” Duba said. “I think we’re all working through that. I think Secretary Wasco and her staff are bringing new ideas and it’s you know, change is hard.” 

HB-1017 will be up for debate on the House floor on Friday, Speaker of the House Hugh Bartels said Thursday.