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Lawmakers look to fund new prison amid calls for focus on treatment

The South Dakota Women's Prison at 156 percent capacity according to the state Department of Corrections
Lee Strubinger
The South Dakota Women's Prison at 156 percent capacity according to the state Department of Corrections

The state women’s prison in Pierre is overcrowded. Built to hold just over 200 people, the Department of Corrections reports it now has 316 inmates.

State Sen. Red Dawn Foster, (D-Pine Ridge), toured the facility recently. She described what she saw as ‘eye-opening’ and ‘heart-breaking.'

“Conditions that they’re currently living in I would characterize as inhumane,” Foster said. “We have nine women in a room that’s designed—it was a training facility designed to hold two trainees.”

Foster said women are sleeping on bunk beds with very little space to move.

More than sixty percent of the incarcerated women are serving time for drug-related crimes. Foster said overcrowding can affect access to addiction services.

South Dakota prison capacity as of June 30, 2022.
South Dakota Department of Corrections
South Dakota prison capacity as of June 30, 2022.

“When you’re looking at addiction, it can’t just be imprisonment," Foster said. "It needs to come with the types of services that will address the underlying root cause. Those are the resources that are not being applied in the community as of yet.”

The proposed $60 million women’s prison in Rapid City would add 300 beds. It’s part of a larger investment and expansion lawmakers and the governor are hoping to make on the state’s prison facilities.

Critics say the state needs to fund treatment, not new prisons.

“By virtue of our public policy we are setting up people who suffer from addiction for failure,” said Libby Skarin, a policy lawyer with the ACLU South Dakota.

The group opposes building a new prison. Instead, Skarin says the state should look at criminal justice reform and more focus on treatment.

She points to the state’s felony level ingestion law as one example.

“We are punishing people for crimes that rise from addiction, instead of taking an approach that could meaningfully prevent crime, that could meaningfully help people beat addiction and lead to better outcomes, both for individuals and society,” Skarin said.

South Dakota is the only state in the country that charges ingestion of a controlled substance as a felony. That means a person with illegal drugs in their system faces felony charges and sentencing. Seventy-three inmates – or more than 20% of the state’s incarcerated women - are behind bars with ingestion as their highest charge.

According to a 2018 prison cost estimate, state and county governments spend $60 million every decade on incarcerating individuals for ingestion. That’s roughly the same cost as the proposed new women’s prison in Rapid City.

South Dakota prison characteristics as of June 30, 2022
South Dakota Department of Corrections
South Dakota prison characteristics as of June 30, 2022

Attorney General Marty Jackley is against changes to the state law. He said the ingestion charge is a tool that helps prosecutors tackle drug dealers, drug distribution and the use of meth.

Jackley said the state has received $78.6 million in opioid settlements from some of the big pharmaceutical companies. He said instead of changing state law, it should use that one-time money for drug prevention programs and treatment.

“We need a place for somebody that’s addicted to go an address that addiction. Prison isn’t the place for that. Jail isn’t the place for that," Jackley said. "We need to invest, as a state, in treatment. I think if we invest right in treatment I think it will reduce prison costs and jail costs for our counties."

The number of meth arrests steadily increased until 2017. Since then, there have been around 3,600 meth arrests every year.

The legislative deadline for new bills has passed – so it’s unlikely a push for more addiction treatment and healthcare will surface during this session.

State Sen. David Wheeler, (R-Huron), said the state does need better programming to address meth addiction.

“It is a terrible drug. It ruins people lives and it is very hard to get off of once you’re on it. Dedicated treatment is necessary, but it’s very expensive," Wheeler said. "To get the licensed counselors who know how to handle that and do it in a correctional setting is not easy.”

Wheeler said the current overcrowding and immediate space problem create other issues for the corrections system. He said that needs to be addressed before piecing together a better, well-rounded corrections program.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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