PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A panel of state lawmakers and others has begun work on a plan to help bring South Dakota’s prison system into the 22nd century.

The Legislature’s Task Force on Incarceration Construction Fund met for the first time Tuesday at the Capitol.

Senator Mike Diedrich (deed-rick), a Rapid City Republican, chairs the task force. He said the group will meet at least one more time on August 31, and can meet up to three times overall, and then report to the Legislature ahead of the 2023 session that opens in January.

South Dakota’s new secretary of corrections Kellie Wasko presented an overview of the various facilities for men in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Springfield and Yankton and for women in Pierre.

She said the women’s population this year has already exceeded what the consultant had forecast for 2024.

Wasko went over the consultant’s recommendations and the Department of Corrections analysis of them. She said her first priority matched the DLR Group — a new 1,372-bed male facility in Sioux Falls that could be expanded to 1,500 — but her second priority was a new 200-bed female facility at Rapid City. DLR had instead recommended adding 250 beds to the women’s prison in Pierre.

“I do believe the appropriate place for that is not in Pierre, it’s Rapid City,” she said. She pushed other items on the DLR list farther down or said they wouldn’t be on her list.

The net gain would be 50 beds for women under her approach of expanding to Rapid City. She said the new male facility at 1,500 beds would replace the 1881 territorial penitentiary in Sioux Falls that would be kept for historical purposes but wouldn’t continue to house men. But the new facility would need 100 acres of space at the Sioux Falls complex that she said haven’t been identified. The net gain in male beds would be 300.

Wasko was hired in February of this year to permanently replace Mike Leidholt, who resigned. Leidholt signed the $323,000 contract with DLR on June 3, 2021. Shortly after that, Governor Kristi Noem began an investigation into Department of Corrections operations that quickly led to several top firings and Leidholt’s eventual departure.

Wasko wouldn’t give cost estimates for how many more staff would be needed under her department’s recommendations. She said staffing would depend in large part on the design of the new male facility.

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, a task force member, said part of the price tag is to play catch-up with the current overcrowding and whether the 350 additional beds line up with projected growth. “That’s exactly why I’d like to have another assessment of the projections,” Wasko answered. “I look at these projections and don’t know what DLR was provided with.”

Wasko said one statutory change can impact space needs and she wants “a reasonable methodology to stand on.” 

The task force has 15 legislators and seven other members, including inmate Isaac Swan of Rapid City who is on parole and Brown County Commission member Mike Wiese.

Some members of the task force after the meeting went on a tour of the women’s prison.

A separate legislative panel meanwhile is looking at regional jails that counties share while a third group of lawmakers is studying the juvenile justice system.