Steven Waller

Steven Waller, chair of the Clay County Jail/Law Enforcement Center Facility Committee, answers a question during his Nov. 3 presentation to inform the public of the progress the committee has made on the design and possible location of the new facility. The public meeting was held in the Edith B. Siegrist Vermillion Public Library.

Editor's note: A second story sharing additional information from the Nov. 3 meeting willl appear in the Nov. 26 Plain Talk.

Steve Waller, chair of the Jail and Law Enforcement Center Facility Committee, warned people that gathered for a public informational meeting at the Vermillion Public Library on Wednesday, Nov. 3 that they would be disappointed if they expected to hear specific recommendations or detailed numbers.

“We can’t provide any of that at this time,” he said. “We want to hear from you and get your thoughts.”

This committee has been in place since November 2019; its members appointed by the Clay County Commission to review reports it had received from Klein McCarthy Architects and TLM Correctional Consultants.

Those reports indicate the Clay County Courthouse, the County Jail, and the Joint Law Enforcement facilities are no longer meeting current staff and community needs.

The same studies concluded that the jail and the joint law enforcement center must be replaced with a modern functional facility that will meet contemporary jail standards and legal guidelines.

Last March, the Clay County Commission decided to follow one of the recommendations of the committee and issue $41 million in General Obligation Bonds to pay for the construction of a new jail, a new law enforcement center, new court space and new government services offices. Included in that total were dollars to cover land acquisition costs for the construction of new county facilities on a yet-to-be determined site.

Clay County voters were asked to approve the issuance of the bonds in a June 8 election and they soundly said ‘no.’ The bond issue was defeated by a vote of 1,544 to 766, following the formation of a special citizens committee that worked to oppose the bond because the county’s plan would mean abandoning the century-old Clay County Courthouse in Vermillion.

Under the plan approved by county commissioners last March, both the courthouse and the current law enforcement center, which were constructed in 1912 and 1989, respectively, would be vacated.

The Jail and Law Enforcement Center Facility Committee has been busy since the June defeat, hoping to come up with a plan for the construction of a new jail and law enforcement center that meet citizens’ approval.

“Our charge that was issued to us in June 2021 after the election was basically to identify a site for the for the jail and law enforcement center that would serve Clay County and Vermillion,” Waller said, adding that the center must be located in Vermillion and be adequately sized to serve the center’s primary mission for 50 years or more.

“We want to build a facility that will last, will persist and continue to be used. That means we probably will have to provide some aspect that will allow some sort of reasonable and necessary expansion,” he said. “We all know things have changed as things as developed. This 50-year target is what we’re challenged to do, to kind of predict forward into the future and that’s not always the easiest process to do.”

He noted that the jail and law enforcement center, as planned, are two separate but related structures.

“The jail and jail support structures are highly secure areas,” Waller said. “You need special access to get in, to get around and get out of a jail. You can’t just walk into a jail. That level of security is quite intense and unfortunately is rather expensive at times. It is not the simple matter of a key change. It is a combination of key, electronic locks, facial recognition – it’s a very complicated process.”

The Clay County Sheriff, he said, is responsible for oversight of the jail’s operations, he said.

Waller added that inmate populations have declined 7% nationally, but increased in South Dakota by 8% between 2012 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners Series (1999-2017).

“We have been fortunate that the courts and the state’s attorney office that support Clay County have been very aggressive in helping us keep our inmate numbers down,” he said. “They’ve been doing that with innovative strategies, releasing inmates to home management, keeping bonds at a comfortable level, but the reality is our inmate numbers are starting to increase.

“We can’t zero it out,” Waller said. “It doesn’t seem to work that way.”

He shared statistics that focused on the Clay County Jail that show the average daily population (ADP) for the jail in 2019 was 21.65 inmates.

“Note that number 21. That number is larger than our jail size was and that explains why even at that time we were housing prisoners outside of our jail into other jails in other areas regionally -- Union, Yankton, perhaps even Minnehaha counties.” The ADP of the county jail decreased in 2020, in part because of the pandemic, but is beginning to climb this year.

A second public hearing will be held 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23, at the library.

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