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Clay County residents vote on plan to replace jail

The Clay County jail in Vermillion, SD has been in operation for 110 years but local law enforcement leaders are calling for new facilities.

Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe said , the jail is often overcrowded and can't handle current needs.

The jail, built in 1912, originally had 18 beds available. When an elevator shaft was added to the Clay County Courthouse, the jail lost four beds.

A project that combined the courthouse with the public safety center in 1988 gave the jail a few more cells, bringing the capacity to its current count at 20 beds.

Howe said the jail often finds itself functionally full even when there are fewer than 20 inmates. Because of the limited capacity, law enforcement is not able to separate inmates effectively.

Currently in the jail, men and women are separated. Howe said they need to separate non-violent inmates from violent offenders.

"We need to have a lot of options to segregate these people, at times we have had inmates on cots on the floor," Howe said.

Overcrowding is a regular problem in the jail, according to Howe, with inmates often relocated to nearby counties, due to a lack of space.

Currently, inmates are held in Clay County for a 72-hour period, given time to post bond and if their sentence extends that time frame, they are sent away to nearby counties with more space.

"We just don't feel we can meet our obligations beyond 72 hours," Howe said.

Clay County pays a boarding rate to other counties for the duration of an inmates stay in that facility. In neighboring counties like Union, that fee is $65 a day per inmate, but Howe said that price is going up to $85 in the new year.

"We not only pay the boarding fee, but we also pay for staff, equipment, gas and transportation of the inmates to and from," he said.

Howe said for inmates with court appearances, that travel can sometimes be every week.

Local residents will vote on a $42.8 million bond measure that would raise taxes to build a new Clay County jail and safety center.

The bond would relocate the jail and its administrative offices to a new location on the west side of the city.

Some community residents have raised concerns about not only the tax increase, but also how the new facilities might take away from the historic Clay County Courthouse, which is listen on the National Register for Historical Places.

In a press release, the group Save Our Clay County Courthouse discussed concerns about the lack of strategic plan to preserve and restore the existing courthouse.

Sen. Arthur Rusch representing District 17 spoke of the high tax increase, saying the project could be completed for less.

Sheriff Andy Howe said if the community waits longer, the costs for the project will increase.

"There's no getting around it, we've found every available thing we could cut that would also solve the problem," he said.

Voters will decide the issue on Nov. 8th.

Marissa Brunkhorst is a junior at the University of South Dakota. She is from Hutchinson, Minnesota and is based out of the Vermillion studio.