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Mayor and former mayor want regional jail in Mobridge

Bridges span the Missouri River at Mobridge. Online photo from the Chamber of Commerce at
Bridges span the Missouri River at Mobridge. Online photo from the Chamber of Commerce at

The mayor of Mobridge in Walworth County says he wants a regional jail built in his city, in part to house prisoners from other jurisdictions to try to make a profit.

Mayor Gene Cox and former Mayor Rick Cain addressed the legislative interim committee that is exploring the use of regional jails to resolve jail and prison overcrowding, as well as the lack of jail beds in rural areas.

Mobridge is a hub city for shopping, recreation, and services in north central South Dakota, situated along the eastern shore of the Missouri River and about 40 miles south of the North Dakota border.

Mayor Cox told legislators that Mobridge is one of a few rural towns that has a municipal police department. Mobridge has two police holding cells, but Walworth County, whose administrative center is located in Selby, does not have a county jail.

Cox told of problems the town of Mobridge has with offenders who are intoxicated to a dangerous level. He said police officers now carry NARCAN to deal with fentanyl overdoses, and it’s not unusual for arrestees to test alarmingly high for blood alcohol content.

When police make an arrest, the prisoner has to be transported to another county’s jail. Walworth County has contracts with nine other counties whose jails are anywhere from 96 to 200 miles away, across long stretches of open land.

Cox said that’s a long trek under the best conditions and impossible under others.

“That hundred miles—Superbowl Sunday, middle of February, we have this situation and a blizzard, we’re kind of stuck,” he said.

Cox said other counties won’t take offenders who are drunk, drugged, or mentally or physically ill, but the majority of arrestees in Mobridge fit at least one of those descriptions.

The mayor told legislators about a situation in the previous week when Mobridge police arrested five people before 11 a.m.

“We had one in each holding cell. We had one in each interview room—we have two interview rooms, so both of those were full. And then we had one in the back of a police car that was in the garage. I mean, they were being monitored and everything,” Cox said. “And according to our captain, Brown County, and Hughes County wouldn’t take them in their current condition.”

Cox said holding arrestees under those conditions, waiting for them to sober up or come down sufficiently to be transported, is not safe for them or for city and county employees dealing with them, and it puts the city in a position to be sued.

He said the Walworth County jail was shut down in 2020, and jobs for jailers converted to jobs for drivers. But transporting is an unpleasant job, he said, sometimes requiring waking up in the middle of the night to drive 100 miles, and the county is now looking for drivers to replace those who have quit.

Cox was accompanied at the interim committee hearing by Rick Cain, a former Mobridge mayor and Walworth County commissioner. Cain laid out financial facts, including that Walworth County’s expenses currently exceed its income, in part because of the cost of transporting arrestees and paying other jails to keep them.

Cain said the county is augmenting its annual budget with savings, and his calculations show that the county will run out of money if something doesn’t happen to change its situation.

“In 2025, at some point in time, the county will be broke,” he said. “They will not have the funds to pay their bills.”

He said the county has tried twice in recent years to get voters to approve a bond issue to build a new jail, but the voters said no by about three to one.

The two officials said they want the state to fund construction of a regional jail in Mobridge. By augmenting county revenue with rent paid by other counties and agencies—including the U.S. Marshals Service and border counties in North Dakota—Walworth County would then be able to staff the jail and fund operations.

They also asked that the legislature consider giving the state authority to take over the finances of a failing county until it gets economically healthy again.

Cox said if the state decides instead to support a statewide plan that leaves Walworth County reliant on a regional jail 100 miles away, then he wants state law to require that those state-sanctioned jails take arrestees as they find them.

The interim committee will meet one more time on Zoom to discuss final recommendations to present to the legislature at its upcoming 2023 session.

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