This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The location of a proposed joint state-county facility in Brown County is the former Hub City Incorporated building.
PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota legislators studying regional jails will visit Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Vermillion later this year.
Those choices will give the committee a chance to see Brown County’s proposal for a combined facility that would also help the South Dakota Department of Corrections relieve overcrowding at the state women’s prison in Pierre.
The state lawmakers also want to hear from county commissioners across a 15-county region about what does and doesn’t work in South Dakota’s current statutes regarding county compacts for regional jails.
And the lawmakers would get to see the relatively new Minnehaha County jail in Sioux Falls and the aging Clay County jail in Vermillion.
The committee held its first meeting Thursday in Pierre. The next meeting is Wednesday, July 20, and the third will be August 22. The group returns to Pierre for a final meeting on September 20.
The committee’s chair, Senator Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls, has approval for two trips from Senate president pro tem Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board that assigned the committee.
Some western South Dakota lawmakers on the committee, including Representative Mary Fitzgerald, R-Spearfish, Senator Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, and Representative Becky Drury, R-Rapid City, suggested Rapid City and Deadwood rather than Sioux Falls and Vermillion.
Stalzer made what he described as “an executive decision” for the three eastern South Dakota cities after none of the committee members came forward with a motion.
The committee heard an overview from Codington County commissioner Lee Gabel and a proposal for a joint state-county facility from Brown County commissioner Mike Wiese that would be part of the conversion of the former Hub City Incorporated building in the Aberdeen industrial park.
Gabel said 41 of South Dakota’s 66 counties contract for beds or rent space in other counties’ jails rather than continue operating their own. The 2021 jail population averaged 1,980 per day, compared to 383 in 1985. “I think you can see the way the trend is going,” Gabel said.
Staci Ackerman, executive director for the South Dakota Sheriffs’ Association, said counties are working together to find solutions. The issues are overall funding and how much a contracting county might contribute to a capacity project. “With 41 counties without a jail, every jail is a regional jail,” she said.
The current statewide capacity of 2,512 adult beds in county jails doesn’t mean they can take that many prisoners, Ackerman said, because men must be separate from women, and there are different levels of offenders.
Chief deputy sheriff Jeff Gromer said Minnehaha County’s 579-bed jail primarily houses prisoners from Minnehaha and Lincoln counties and rents space as available to other counties. He said another floor is available with the potential for an additional 148 beds. He described the jail’s financial situation as “break even, at best.” The $95 nightly bed fee is the highest in South Dakota.
“Most people don’t come to jail one time,” Gromer noted. “We’re seeing the same people over and over and over again.”
Senator Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, pushed for the panel to make the trip to Brown County. He said the Brown County jail serves a 15-county area. “It’s critical to that entire northeast corner of the state,” Novstrup said. “Our major desire is to show you the future and not the past.”
The first witness was Kellie Wasko, who’s been on the job for 93 days as South Dakota’s new secretary of corrections. She oversees state government’s system of prisons that’s lately been averaging about 3,400 male and female offenders lately — 190% of designed capacity — with another 3,400-plus offenders on parole.
Wasko said a recent outside study had projected women inmates between 480 and 503 by the year 2026. Last week, she said, there were more than 500 in a facility designed for 322. A second legislative committee has been assigned to advise on the department’s investments in new facilities.
The women inmates need more minimum-security beds, while the men inmates need more high-custody beds, according to Wasko. Stalzer asked about regional jails taking some of them. Replied Wasko, “We are not currently using any of the regional jails overflow.” She said state law gives the department that authority but the state’s “partners” at the county level can’t absorb any.
“I need a relief factor of 200 to 250 in the female facility and much larger in the male facility,” Wasko said.