The state plans to build a new prison in Sioux Falls -- but where?
“They’re not pleasant, there’s no economic development around them," one Sioux Falls lawmaker said, anticipating some public opposition around any planned purchase in the Sioux Falls area.
PIERRE, S.D. — Sioux Falls is getting a new prison.
The question is where.
The legislature on Wednesday, March 1, sent to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk a plan to spend about $320 million to replace the iconic state penitentiary overlooking downtown Sioux Falls. The original portion of the overcrowded, aging prison was built in 1881.
Included in the overall bill for a new facility is about $50 million for the Department of Corrections to buy 130 to 160 acres of land as well as design and planning for a 1,500-bed, maximum-security men's prison.
There's no guarantee that the facility has to be in Sioux Falls but there aren't a lot of other options. Any other location would be unable to support the already stretched workforce needs at the new maximum-security site.
“I have 215 staff that I have to think about,” Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko told lawmakers last week. “Where am I going to move them? If I'm looking at a property that's 30 or 40 minutes away from Sioux Falls, what's the probability I'm going to have 215 staff traveling?”
But deciding where in the general Sioux Falls area is the hard part.
With Wasko seemingly hesitant to raze the historic structure, building next to the still-functional Jameson Annex in the landlocked area north of downtown is out of the question.
Rep. Linda Duba, of Sioux Falls, said conversations last month indicated an appetite for building in the outskirts to the north or west of the city. But that requires finding an area in the rapidly growing footprint of the city willing to make long-term economic sacrifices.
“If you look at other states that modernized their prison system, you'll see them out and away from the community,” said Rep. Greg Jamison, of Sioux Falls, the vice chair of last summer’s study on South Dakota’s incarceration infrastructure. “They’re not pleasant, there’s no economic development around them.”
One specific recommendation for a prison site is the West Farm property about 4 miles west of the city, offered by a consultant group hired by the state in 2021 to review its incarceration system.
Although "somewhat smaller" than the acreage sought after by Wasko, the property has a few benefits: it is already owned by the state, and it sits within close vicinity of Sioux Falls.
A private juvenile treatment center that sits on the property would have to be relocated.
The Department of Corrections has not yet responded to questions from Sioux Falls Live about potential sites. The department’s own timeline on the process suggests that the decision will be made very soon. A presentation to lawmakers on the budget committee indicated the land will be purchased this spring.
The multi-step process ahead of the prison will culminate with construction beginning in 2025.
The South Dakota House of Representatives on Feb. 27 voted 53-16 to set aside the $320 million for a new men’s prison. Another $270 million — a majority of that coming from budget reserves — is a set-aside to begin saving for the project itself, which is estimated to cost around $530 million.
The Senate on March 1 concurred with the investment by a 32-1 vote.
Lawmakers are approaching the Sioux Falls men’s prison in a similar manner to that of the Rapid City women’s prison.
Last session, lawmakers budgeted $3.8 million to purchase land in Rapid City and contract with an engineering company for the facility’s design, and transferred around $70 million to the Incarceration Construction Fund to save for the construction.
A much larger scale is required for a high-security facility to handle five times more people. In the case of the funds set aside for the men’s facility, more will likely be required in the coming years.
A bonding measure can cover some of this cost. In practice, the state can bond up to $200 million on this project before its debt ratio could begin to affect its AAA bond rating, according to the Bureau of Finance and Management. This top bond rating allows the state and entities within the state to borrow money at low interest rates.
While the specifics are yet to shake out, lawmakers skirting other one-time budget projects to make room for the record investment in prisons is a departure from patterns in state history. They appear willing to implement the vision of Secretary Kellie Wasko, who has been in her position atop the corrections department for about a year.
“There appears to be a hodgepodge approach in our history for funding prisons and building prisons because nobody really wants to do it,” Jamison said. “It's one of those constitutional requirements that we're obligated to take care of. It's not fun. It's not pretty. It's not on your resume that you are part of the Legislature that built a prison. But it's necessary work.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.