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Jail space shortage gets legislative attention

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From left: Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko, State Senator Helene Duhamel, who serves as information officer with the Pennington County Sheriff, and Chief Deputy Sheriff Jeff Gromer from Minnehaha County spoke to the Study Committee on Regional Jails and State Correctional Plans in June 2022. Photo courtesy of Minnehaha County Sheriff

South Dakota has 66 counties, but only 25 of them have a county jail. Some sheriffs turn to other counties when they need to find a jail cell for a prisoner, but too often they find that all available space is filled.

This summer an interim legislative committee is trying to resolve the problem. The Study Committee on Regional Jails and State Correctional Plans met in June in Pierre, with more meetings planned throughout the summer.

The term “regional jails” is included in the long title of the interim study committee, emphasizing one primary goal: to determine if it’s feasible for counties to enter into compacts for jail services.

Jeff Gromer is chief deputy sheriff for Minnehaha County. He told the committee that regional jails already exist.

“All these jails—we talk about these jails—they’re all regional facilities,” he said. “Every jail that I’m aware of houses for other facilities. The question is just how much and which model do you use?”

Gromer said his county planned ahead to meet the needs of both Minnehaha and Lincoln counties. As a result, the jail in Sioux Falls has an unoccupied floor, with room for148 beds. He said that space has to stay empty for now, until the need permanently expands.

He noted that jails across the state are running out of room, and eventually, if Sioux Falls keeps growing, Lincoln County might also be left without an option in the Sioux Falls facility.

“What you hear from a lot of the smaller counties is they really have a difficult time finding beds, and that’s because we’re full and we don’t have any more room in the inn,” he said. “My understanding is Pennington County is bumping up against their maximum number as well.”

The committee has indicated interest in compacts as a tool for creating regional jails. That’s how the juvenile services center in Rapid City got its start, according to Helene Duhamel, state senator and a public information officer for the Pennington County Sheriff.

“Our seven-county compact for the Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center was a compact until the bond was paid off. Now we say it’s a joint powers agreement,” she said.

Seven counties share the juvenile facility: Pennington, Custer, Fall River, Harding, Meade, Lawrence, and Butte. Duhamel said compact agreements can work.

“I don’t know how that works elsewhere, but yes, in fact, we do have regional jails right now,” she said. “That’s exactly what’s happening. I don’t know, I think the compact can be an option for people to really think about if they want to. I don’t think it should be off the table.”

Lawrence County Commissioner Randy Deibert agreed, but with a caveat.

“I will say that the compact for the juvenile facility in Rapid City works very well. Lawrence County is a member of that. But it works well because it’s a real small number. Two to three, maybe, at a time, Lawrence County has in there,” he said. “So it’s working very well for that small number. It’s the bigger numbers that concern us.”

Complicating the crunch in jail space is the need for state prison beds, which are full to capacity, according to Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko.

She said when prisons are full, the state has to stop putting inmates in prison. That situation results in a backup into county jails. But she said the counties can’t offer enough space to do much good.

“We are not currently using any of the jails for overflow,” she said. “We do have statutory authority to place a certain amount of offenders into jails if we needed the overflow.”

Wasko said when DOC recently reached out statewide to try to find jail space, the response produced an offer of 20 to 25 beds.

“And 20 or 25 beds helps me for about 48 hours,” she said. “I need a relief factor of 200 to 250 in the female facility and much larger in the male facility.”

Two county commissioners reported to the study committee that their counties are planning a major expansion of jail space.

Randy Deibert said Lawrence County is planning to build a new facility that includes a jail. He said results of a study convinced commissioners to bid on a new complex rather than find room for inmates in other jurisdictions.

“We realized that it was cheaper for us to build a jail than to buy beds and transport,” he said. “And it’s a very complex situation when you’re transporting. Because when you’re transporting prisoners to other locations and back and forth to court, you’re not only [bearing] the expense of transport and the beds but you’re losing patrol hours.”

On the other hand, Brown County found that building a new facility would cost much more than retrofitting an existing building.

Brown County Commissioner Mike Weise said the county has bought a huge structure in the East Industrial Park in Aberdeen with the goal of turning it into a correctional facility to hold county and state prisoners.

Weise said Brown County needs to provide longer-term care than it has in previous years.

“Our average daily intake has decreased over the last five years,” he said. “Part of the reason for that is not that demand has gone down, but our average daily stay has gone up by 50 percent. We have people spending incredibly long period of time in county jails. More than a year; sometimes up to two years.”

Because inmates are staying longer, Weise said there’s an increased need and expense for ancillary services.

Services for inmates are factored in when Minnehaha County rents jail space to other counties, but Chief Deputy Gromer said even then it’s a break-even transaction.

That reality is why Minnehaha County can’t open up the unoccupied jail space on an as-needed basis.

“I don’t know how well I can explain in a real short period of time the level of medical need that arrives at the jail,” Gromer said. “But there’s a lot of people that come into that jail. The fifty people that we book in every single day are coming right off the streets, so we get them in whatever condition the street cops find them in, whether that’s high, drunk, angry, or all of the above. That’s how they’re coming to us. So we have a very significant medical burden that we have to meet for those inmates.”

Gromer said in addition to three nursing positions, the jail also offers mental health care, Department of Social Services programs, competency restoration, and medication-assisted treatment.

Finding a source of revenue for jail space has proven to be an ongoing problem in South Dakota.

State Senator Helene Duhamel said when Pennington County needed to add jail facilities in the 1980s, the county twice referred the issue to the voters, and twice the voters said no.

“If you’d ever put it up to a vote, it’s just going to be turned down, whether it’s an agricultural community or city community,” she said. “People don’t want to spend their tax dollars even though there’s no choice.”

Lawrence County Commissioner Randy Deibert said establishing a common mill levy statewide has been proposed, but that would be a difficult and unfair process. He said each of South Dakota’s 66 counties has its own needs, dynamics, and property tax realities.

For instance, he said Lawrence County has about 26,000 residents living in 800 square miles.

“Fifty-three percent of our land is not on the tax roll. It’s federal lands and state lands,” Deibert said. “Two and a half percent of our assessment is agriculture. The other is non-ag. And you see the diversity between us and Codington County, which is about the reverse of that. And Butte is about the reverse of that. And our land mass is very small.”

Lawrence County is home to Deadwood, the Old West tourist town where gambling is legal, the nightlife is lively, and a need for jail cells is likely.

“In Deadwood alone, we have over three million visitors a year, which is 8,300 a day,” he said. “So you can see the strain that that puts on your county infrastructure and city infrastructure.”

Deibert said counties with a large land mass, small population, and scarce need for jail cells cannot be expected to contribute proportionally.

At the end of the day-long meeting, the team agreed to tour corrections facilities in three locations, tentatively Minnehaha, Clay, and Brown counties, with Pennington as a backup. It will meet again later in July.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.