South Dakota threading a needle to find location for new prison
From water and sewer to the potential for push back from residents, the Department of Corrections has many hurdles to overcome.
SIOUX FALLS — A prison is a small city.
Like a city, it requires sewer, water, energy and roads.
The Department of Corrections is planning a new prison to replace the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, the original portions of which were built before statehood.
It’s not only old, but unsafe for inmates and staff and has needed to be replaced for a long time. On that, there is no disagreement.
The state Legislature recently approved spending $50 million to begin planning and buying land for the new prison, which carries an overall estimated price tag of $530 million.
Corrections officials say they need 130 to 160 acres of land. They want it to be in or near the Sioux Falls metro in order to maintain the workforce of more than 200 employees and have indicated that north and west of the city is likely.
That places target areas roughly in Minnehaha County.
That’s no small task when you consider the infrastructure required. With 1,500 beds plus staff and support, the population will be larger than Minnehaha communities such as Crooks or Baltic.
That presents a needle to thread, to be sure.
“There are only a handful of sites that would fit that bill in the entire state of South Dakota,” said Jesse Fonkert, executive director of Sioux Metro Growth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that assists local communities with economic development.
Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, however.
“At the end of the day, the state is the state,” Fonkert said. “It can do whatever it wants.”
A site may have already been identified but Gov. Kristi Noem declined recently to discuss the possibilities citing the legal process for purchasing land.
“We're following through on that process and identifying potential sites, but I can't give you any more details,” she told Sioux Falls Live on March 6.
Interviews with lawmakers, local officials and planning experts reveal the factors that would guide that process.
The seemingly mundane requirements — such as the water going in and the waste coming out — can pose the greatest challenges. The city of Sioux Falls has the infrastructure to support a new prison. There just aren’t that many spots in or near the city with 160 acres ready for building. And where there is land, it’s likely already planned for commercial or residential development.
Not to mention expensive.
And close to a lot of other things that aren’t a prison.
As corrections officials have said, areas to the north and west of the city are more likely.
The problem then becomes finding water. Many of the areas outside the city depend on rural water systems, which in turn depend on the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System which draws from the Missouri River.
The pipeline isn’t unlimited, however, and those communities are already looking to the future allotments to meet their needs. In short, the state would either have to convince a community to give up a portion or find and treat water from a different source, such as a well.
There isn’t that much water available outside the city right now.
It’s not impossible to extend a pipe from the city’s system into a rural area, but that would be expensive. And the farther out, the more it’s going to cost.
The great unmentionable is disposing — and treating — the waste for 1,500 inmates plus staff.
Again, the city of Sioux Falls has the capacity and is expanding to accommodate growth.
In the rural areas of Minnehaha County that capacity diminished appreciably.
One bright spot is Hartford.
The city of about 3,500 residents is in the process of planning and building a new plant to replace the current lagoon system. The plant is scheduled to be finished in 2025, said Teresa Sidel, city administrator.
The plant is designed to accommodate future residential and commercial growth in the area, which is an easy commute from Sioux Falls.
Hartford currently treats about 500,000 gallons of wastewater at its peak. The new facility will have a capacity of about 3 million gallons, Sidel said.
The city is also talking to neighboring communities about regionalization, so the design includes potential expansion, she said.
“We are in a very good position to entertain any future development,” she said.
Electricity and natural gas are less problematic than other utilities. Sioux Valley Electric provides service to much of the rural area around Sioux Falls. MidAmerican Energy is the primary supplier of natural gas.
While there would be some infrastructure costs associated with extending services, it’s not nearly the hurdle presented by water and sewer.
The primary problem is that most of the land outside the city is zoned agriculture or residential. The penitentiary in Sioux Falls is currently zoned I-1, which is light industrial. Which means that if the state finds a piece of land that will work in terms of location and availability, it’s quite possible that a change of zoning will be required.
Which means opening up the process for public input.
Which means a vote by either one group of elected officials or another.
Which means constituents and while it’s not urban exactly, there are plenty of people living in the rolling verdant hills of Minnehaha County. These aren’t itinerant farmers with nothing to lose.
The area beyond city limits is, in fact, populated with hobby farms and country homes for well-to-do residents.
That is probably not a scenario that corrections officials relish but survivable, nonetheless.
Particularly, as previously noted, the state can do what it wants.
Related to the zoning conversation is that the city of Sioux Falls and the adjoining counties share jurisdiction in a three-mile buffer zone. That means any adjustment to zoning or other issues related to land use have to go through the planning and zoning boards of each government entity before coming before a joint panel for approval.
“It’s the ultimate NIMBY,” said Greg Neitzert, a city councilor in Sioux Falls.
As previously noted, Noem isn’t revealing potential locations for a prison. It’s a prudent approach if you’re trying to mitigate public outrage and NIMBY — "not in my backyard" — opposition.
But the potential is there to really muck up the state’s timeline to build a prison.
The projected calendar is to purchase the land this year with legislative approval for the next phases by March 2024 or 2025.
Any opposition that comes up during a rezoning process will slow things down, perhaps precipitously so.
“I don't think anybody really wants to have a prison in their backyard,” said Rep. Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids.
Hansen’s district includes large portions of western Minnehaha County. He voted against the bill authorizing the $50 million for the early stages of the prison planning, including land acquisition.
“I just wanted to know more details,” he said in an interview. “Where are we going to build this thing?”
That’s a common response from local officials.
The likelihood of vigorous pushback is by its nature inversely proportional to population density.
Simply put, mo’ people, mo’ problems.
Secretary Wasko’s workforce issues notwithstanding, it’s possible the state could take another concentric step out from Sioux Falls.
How far is too far?
Might it not be more feasible to invest heavily in the water and sewer systems of outlying town, bring needed jobs to an overlooked community and sidestep the outcry of the suburban elites by looking a bit further out?
A step across the county border may change the conversation substantially, infrastructure availability notwithstanding.
Sioux Falls is not the only place in the state with workers.
Consider the “Howard Theory,” suggested by a local government official recently.
The Miner County community has under 1,000 residents but it’s within driving distance of more populated cities such as Madison, Brookings, Mitchell and Huron.
Whether Howard could or would welcome a prison is purely hypothetical, but it does bolster the idea of moving further from Sioux Falls.
Sidel, the Hartford administrator, said it took two years for the city to find a site for the planned wastewater plant.
“They need a pretty good parcel of land,” she said. “Land is another resource that is hard to come by.”
West Farm location
As it turns out, the state already owns land in Minnehaha County, just outside the reach of the three mile buffer with Sioux Falls.
The West Farm location — just west of Ellis — was originally just as it sounds, a work farm for inmates from the penitentiary. It was also raised as an option by a consultant hired to study prison needs, which released its report in 2022.
The site converted to transitioning juvenile offenders in 1998 and today is operated by a third party.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough room.
The West Farm is about 65 acres, short of the minimum needed for a prison.
Perhaps ironically, the state owned a lot more land around the site but sold off the rest of the quarter section — about 95 acres — several years ago.
And definitely realistically, landowners in the area reached by Sioux Falls Live say they have not been contacted about selling, have no plans to sell and aren’t enamored with the prospect of a maximum-security prison next door.
The West Farm appears a non-starter.
Only the Department of Corrections knows what sites are on their preferred list.
Wasko appears reluctant to consider redeveloping the current penitentiary site. There would be clear issues with the historic elements of the building itself and even then it’s just not big enough.
The entire campus is just 35 acres, including the Jameson Annex, which will remain a corrections facility.
And there’s no room to expand.
The Hartford area has much of the infrastructure to accommodate a new prison, but it’s not unpopulated, by any means.
Mayor Paul Tenhaken recently expressed his desire for a new prison to be somewhere other than the Sioux Falls area. But as he said the reality is that an urban area provides other services — medical and social — that other parts of the state do not have.
“We are the regional center of everything,” Sioux Falls Chief of Police Jon Thum said during a city council briefing on Tuesday, March 14. “But we also know that in some shape or form, the prison will have to be somewhat near to Sioux Falls, just because of the medical component that is offered here, the services that are offered here.”
That said, what city officials also want to see is more emphasis on releasing inmates to the communities in which they committed the crime. That’s better for Sioux Falls as its disperses the parolee population but also for the person as they try and rebuild their lives. Going outside the city also has the benefit of helping other communities from an economic and workforce development perspective.
“For many people, they might be more successful if they are released closer to their family and friends,” said Thum, “as opposed to being released into some of our neighborhoods where many temptations exist.”