HARRISBURG, S.D. – Lincoln County residents held a second public forum on a proposed prison in the county on Thursday night. The organizers were members of Neighbors Opposing Prison Expansion, also known as ‘NOPE’.
It was a packed house at the Harrisburg Meadow Barn. Similar to their first forum in Canton last month, in attendance, there were over 200 Lincoln County residents, NOPE board members and a few Lincoln County Commissioners and State Representatives.
NOPE invited members from the state to Thursday’s forum, including Governor Kristi Noem and Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko, but with an ongoing lawsuit, NOPE did not expect them to show up. Still, they left chairs out just in case. Recently, the state asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming immunity to the suit based on sovereign status.
“It’s a little heartbreaking to see, especially when you stop and think of these are the elected officials that neglected to provide us with communication in the beginning,” said NOPE President, Kyah Broders. “I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it’s for a declaratory judgment to help prevent issues like this from happening in the future. Going through zoning and following a comprehensive plan is key for people to be able to feel secure in their God-given rights when we are purchasing property. It’s a big deal to us right now. It should be a big deal to us all the time, but when this is stuck right in your face, it changes the perspective.”
With the next legislative session in South Dakota around the corner, some expect talks about the future prison site to be prominent. Representative Kevin Jensen of District 16 is particularly interested in seeing where the budget discussions will go.
“With the money that we’re putting into the budget this year still will not cover the entire cost [of the new prison],” said Jensen. “One of the concerns I have is when we’re moving out to a rural location like this, the ongoing expenses where currently we already have up to maybe a 30% turnover rate of employees and I think there’s a prediction of up to 40%, at least in the first year or two. Then the daily cost of operations. One prediction I’m seeing is for each inmate it would cost about $99 a day to house them. For ‘25 they’re predicting $151 a day and I’m just wondering where all that extra money’s going to come from in the budget because we’re not seeing that part of the budget right now.”
Jensen expressed concern about what side effects pushing for the proposed prison site will bring as well as costs not explicitly talked about on a state level.
“We’re still in this place where we’re talking about local residents and what [the prison] is going to do to change their lives and change land values,” Jensen stated. “Some of the realtors are saying that it’s going to hurt future development coming south of town. If you haven’t lived in this part of the county in a winter snowstorm, I’m really concerned that the services won’t be there. They won’t be able to get there. If we have to add all those services in-house, there’s going to be a huge additional operational cost that we’re not hearing anything about.”
Jensen also expects legislation to be presented regarding the prison site this legislative session.
“Some of us are still looking for a more suitable site and explanations why we’re going to have to put in all this infrastructure that isn’t there, so I think there will be legislation, but I haven’t heard of anything specific at this point,” Jensen explained.
“I think really balancing that power with our legislatures is going to be a huge deal,” Broders explained. “I really think that there has to be some pieces [of legislation] moved through depending on where we land in the courts, I would love to see more curb than gutter for what our state can and can’t do. “
The process of opposing the prison site and calling for transparency from the state has yielded slow progress, but these forums show residents that they aren’t alone and stand unified realizing that this battle is just getting started.
“We do anticipate that it’s going to be a lengthy process and we really want people to not only help this cause to help prevent things like this from happening in the future, but also to connect with their elected officials as well,” Broders said. “People have to be mindful that these aren’t businesses or corporations that it’s being put in front of. It’s being put in front of young families and generational farmers. The support in any way, shape or form is always appreciated.”
The next date in the lawsuit between the state, the Department of Corrections, Secretary Wasko and NOPE is January 2nd, where at 3:30 p.m. they will have a court hearing in Canton. A second circuit judge will hear arguments on both sides and see if the suit can progress any further.