A staffing issue at the Lake County Jail has caused a procedural change: female prisoners will be housed elsewhere for the time being.

Lake County Sheriff Tim Walburg reported that the department now has only one female corrections officer, which is not enough. The temporary solution is to transport female prisoners to Brookings County to be housed there. The cost is $95 per day, plus transportation and prescription costs.

Operating any incarceration facility is tough. The challenges are numerous, and the nationwide labor shortage affecting every industry and region just makes it harder. We think Walburg does an excellent job here in Lake County.

So the decision to contract with Brookings County is a sound one, but it could be expensive. We used to think of local prisoners being almost entirely male, with women being an anomaly. But the local roster of prisoners has had a substantial number of female prisoners is recent years, so the cost could be high.

While the medium-term solution will be to hire additional female jailers, the long-term solution will likely involve the whole system of incarceration facilities throughout South Dakota, including prisons, county jails, regional jails, juvenile facilities, mental health facilities and others.

The South Dakota Legislature is studying regional jails, including a proposal in Aberdeen that would provide relief for the overcrowding of the women’s prison in Pierre.on Thursday, and meetings are scheduled for July, August and September.

The 2021 county jail population averaged 1,980 per day, compared to 383 in 1985. Forty-one of South Dakota’s 66 counties don’t operate their own jails, but contract with others. The state prisons are operated separately, but they must coordinate with local jails, which are intended for shorter-term stays. Separately, a consultant’s study of the state’s facilities reported their age and out-of-date design, and recommended wholesale renovation or replacement.

We’d like to see extraordinary cooperation among all stakeholders, including county sheriffs, state corrections officials, the state mental health facility leadership, city police, advocates for prisoners and experts in rehabilitation and prevention of repeat offences. It’s a huge undertaking, but success could be remarkable.

— Jon M. Hunter