Following $320 million investment, where will the new Sioux Falls prison go?
“They’re not pleasant, there’s no economic development around them," one Sioux Falls lawmaker said, anticipating some public opposition around any planned purchase in the Sioux Falls area
PIERRE, S.D. — There’s a prison coming to Sioux Falls.
Following a lengthy discussion this summer over needed prison investments, the South Dakota House of Representatives on Feb. 27 voted 53-16 to set aside about $320 million for a new men’s prison, replacing the overcrowded, aging facility overlooking downtown Sioux Falls, which was constructed in 1881.
That top-line dollar amount includes $50 million to allow the Department of Corrections to purchase roughly 130-160 acres of land for the facility and contract for the design and planning of the intended 1,500-bed, maximum-security facility.
The other $270 million — a majority of that coming from budget reserves — is a set-aside to begin saving for the project itself, which is estimated to cost around $530 million.
The spending approval in the House, and its likely passage in the Senate, begets one major question: where should it go?
The short answer is Sioux Falls, as any other location would be unable to support the already stretched workforce needs at the new maximum-security site.
“I have 215 staff that I have to think about,” Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko told lawmakers last week. “Where am I going to move them? If I'm looking at a property that's 30 or 40 minutes away from Sioux Falls, what's the probability I'm going to have 215 staff traveling?”
But deciding where in that general radius around Sioux Falls is the hard part.
With Wasko seemingly hesitant to raze the historic structure, building the new site next to the still-functional Jameson Annex in the landlocked area north of downtown Sioux Falls is out of the question.
According to Rep. Linda Duba, of Sioux Falls, conversations last month indicated an appetite for building in the outskirts to the north or west of the city.
But delving into the details of exactly where to build the prison requires finding an area in the rapidly growing footprint of Sioux Falls willing to make long-term economic sacrifices.
“If you look at other states that modernized their prison system, you'll see them out and away from the community,” said Rep. Greg Jamison, of Sioux Falls, the vice chair of last summer’s study on South Dakota’s incarceration infrastructure. “They’re not pleasant, there’s no economic development around them.”
Though the Department of Corrections did not respond to questions from Forum News Service on their more specific considerations regarding where to purchase land in the Sioux Falls area, the department’s own timeline on the process suggest that decision will be made very soon, with a presentation to lawmakers on the budget committee indicating the land will be purchased this spring.
The multi-step process ahead of the prison will culminate with construction beginning in 2025.
Lawmakers are approaching the Sioux Falls men’s prison in a similar manner to that of the Rapid City women’s prison.
Last session, lawmakers set aside $3.8 million to purchase land in Rapid City and contract with an engineering company for the facility’s design, and transferred around $70 million to the Incarceration Construction Fund to save for the construction.
This year, while a much larger scale is required for the higher-security facility set to handle five times more people, lawmakers are doing much of the same — $50 million for construction and design and $270 million set aside for the construction itself.
In the case of the funds set aside for the men’s facility, more will likely be required in the coming years.
While a bonding measure can cover some of this cost, in practice the state can bond up to $200 million on this project before its debt ratio could begin to affect its AAA bond rating, according to the Bureau of Finance and Management. This top bond rating allows the state and entities within the state to borrow money at low interest rates.
While the specifics are yet to shake out, lawmakers skirting other one-time budget projects to make room for the record incarceration investment is a departure from patterns in state history, potentially showing a will to implement the vision of Secretary Kellie Wasko, who has been in her position atop the corrections department for about a year.
“There appears to be a hodgepodge approach in our history for funding prisons and building prisons because nobody really wants to do it,” Jamison said. “It's one of those constitutional requirements that we're obligated to take care of. It's not fun. It's not pretty. It's not on your resume that you are part of the Legislature that built a prison. But it's necessary work.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.