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Prison population crisis drives new construction

Victoria Wicks

Prison populations have overwhelmed existing structures. That is what interim study committees have heard this summer. According to the Secretary of Corrections, the solution lies in more and better prisons, and solutions need a lot of money.

DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko addressed her concerns before the Legislative Task Force on the Incarceration Construction Fund on Wednesday, Aug. 31.

Wasko told interim committees this summer that the Department of Corrections is hoping to build a women’s prison in Rapid City and a men’s prison in Sioux Falls. The women’s facility is farther along. DOC has purchased land and designed the space.

Wasko said multi-use confinement facilities like the one tentatively proposed in Brown County can’t resolve prison overcrowding. For one thing, she said, some jail inmates have not yet been proven guilty, and they have a different set of rights from prison inmates who have been convicted.

And she said the population crisis is too big for spare jail cells.

“Right now, I’m looking at contracting beds so that I can take women off of the floor in gymnasiums and off of the floor in classrooms because they’re not safe where they’re being housed,” she said. “But that’s not our long-term plan.”

Asked if early release of nonviolent offenders would help, Wasko said that would be up to the parole board. She said she can authorize extended confinement, releasing a prisoner into a community with restrictions and an ankle monitor, but inmates are all too often untreated addicts.

“We need these beds terribly, and I’m considering sending somebody out on extended confinement on my signature and praying that they don’t create another victim or kill somebody because they get behind a wheel under the influence,” she said.

Representative Hugh Bartels said he supports going ahead with constructing new prisons.

He noted that the incarceration of women is projected to increase by 20 percent over the next four years, a situation he called a “catastrophic plague.”

The Task Force agreed to support the construction of the Rapid City facility and the purchase of land for the Sioux Falls prison, but members also want DOC to continue exploring contracts with regional facilities such as jails.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.