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Task force members weigh competing visions for $600M investment in state's prison system

The Legislative Task Force on the Incarceration Construction Fund, charged with making recommendations to the Legislature for improving the state's correctional infrastructure, met for the first time on July 27. The meeting featured two differing visions on the roadmap to improvement, one from architecture firm DLR Group and the other from Kellie Wasko, the state's new secretary of corrections.

Springfield prison
The gates at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, South Dakota. The facility was one of many in the state with staffing shortages and a lack of inmate programming.
Chris Huber / Mitchell Republic
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PIERRE, S.D. — The shortcomings of the state’s correctional system and a recommended $600 million investment dominated the first meeting of a state task force created this past session for the “capital construction or improvement of incarceration facilities.”

The Tuesday, July 26, meeting of the Legislative Task Force on the Incarceration Construction Fund was also one of the first looks at the priorities of Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko, the new head of the South Dakota Department of Corrections, who was appointed in March of this year after a stint as the deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“[Incarcerated people] are here as punishment, not for punishment,” Wasko said while explaining her approach to corrections and focus on lowering rates of repeat offenders. “We need to get them out of their cells and appropriately treated and reintroduced to society.”

The discussion had two main aspects: first, a report by Wasko laying out the current state of the corrections department and, second, a comparison of that report to the recommendations from DLR Group, an architecture firm contracted for a total of $335,000 by the state to conduct an analysis of the state’s prison system.

Wasko’s vision for improving the state’s correctional services differed from that of DLR in a few notable places, a disagreement that the task force will have to work through in subsequent meetings.

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“In my humble opinion, we need to connect those groups, DLR and the secretary, in order for [a revisiting of the study] to happen,” said Rep. Greg Jamison, R-Sioux Falls, the vice chair of the task force.

Department of Corrections presentation reveals overcrowding, staff shortages

Wasko delivered a presentation covering the physical infrastructure and cost of the state’s prison system, inmate population trends, rates of repeat offenders and recommendations regarding shortcomings and gaps in service, especially in addiction services.

The presentation brought to light concerns about overcrowding, especially in the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre, as the population of incarcerated women has grown at a higher rate than department predictions.

Another issue mentioned by the department was the significant difficulties in hiring, with Wasko saying the state is “faced with staffing challenges that I don't think I've seen as critical in my whole career.”

The department of corrections presentation finished with a series of recommendations, some of which overlapped with those in the DLR report, such as the building of a correctional facility in Sioux Falls and improvements to some Community Work Centers.

However, Wasko urged that many of the recommendations either be put lower on the priority list or scrapped entirely. Wasko told the task force that some of her ideas, such as building fences at lower security facilities in the state and opting for remodeling and improvement rather than expensive demolition in other cases, would lead to better outcomes for the proposed price tag.

“I would rather get us to a point where we're safely housing offenders so that our staff are safe and the offenders are getting their constitutional care and treatment rather than complete all of the DLR recommendations,” Wasko said.

DLR Group lays out budgeting, timeline of proposed $600 million investment

The largest single expenditure in the $600 million recommendations prepared by DLR group is the construction of a nearly $340 million, 1,372-bed facility based in the Sioux Falls area, an initiative Wasko supports.

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The facility would meet both the modest growth in inmate population and streamline the specialized care and programming required for those in the system with “mental and behavioral health, chronic health, and mobility issues.”

Nearly $170 million was also recommended for improvements to the system of Community Work Centers, one aspect of an effort to lower repeat offender rates by aiding in inmate transition after serving time.

The DLR report did not address the problem of a shortfall in hirings, explaining that the “high rate of vacancies … as well as the difficulty in finding qualified candidates” are “beyond the scope of this project.”

The task force plans to meet at most two more times over the summer and early fall, with the first of those meetings planned for Aug. 31. The final report outlining the committee’s legislative recommendations is planned to be released in November.

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
After heading to Rapid City for the debate, Gov. Kristi Noem left the state for a campaign event with gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in Arizona. The move drew criticism from some who pointed to Noem's implication in September that recovery from back surgery would curtail her ability to travel for several months.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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