South Dakota’s meth epidemic has so fueled the rise in crime that the state corrections department is now struggling with an influx of prisoners.

The state’s prison population currently stands at 3,913 men and women, compared with 3,735 last year and 3,557 in 2015, according to figures presented by Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk to the state corrections commission on Wednesday.

“The past few weeks have been very difficult for us in trying to manage our population,” Kaemingk told six commission members in a meeting at the Rapid City minimum security facility. The commission was established to help the corrections department examine criminal justice issues and come up with responses.

“The meth epidemic is the driving force behind what we are seeing,” Kaemingk said. “Frankly, if we do not control our southern border with Mexico and methamphetamine coming in, I don’t know if there’s a blue sky that we’re gonna be seeing in the distant future.”

People incarcerated on meth offenses encompass both new offenders and convicted individuals who violated the terms of their probation, he said in an interview.

The majority of state inmates are actually nonviolent offenders, Kaemingk told the commission members, including three state legislators and a circuit judge. At the end of June, the secretary's data showed, 54 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women inmates fell in this category.

To provide nonviolent female offenders an alternative to prison, the department is setting up a Pennington County program that would allow women to get drug and/or alcohol treatment while living in a home.

The three-year program, supported by a $1.75 million grant from the Department of Justice, aims to get going by May. The corrections department is now reviewing the bids of potential service providers and plans to begin recruitment and training in January, the commission was told.

The program is targeted at Pennington County female offenders since they made up a quarter of the state’s female prison population — the most from any county — when the grant was awarded in October 2016. It is expected to benefit at least 100 women.

Kaemingk discussed also the problem of minimum security inmates escaping from corrections facilities or job sites. This year, around 18 inmates committed the violation, including a man who was later found shot to death and another who is facing a murder charge in Rapid City.

From interviews with 19 escapees who agreed to speak about their violation, Kaemingk said some attributed the behavior to mental health issues, others to family problems.

“They felt helpless sitting here, and they decided to walk away,” he said.

The majority of escapes apparently involved “no planning,” and Kaemingk said some inmates described their behavior as “stupid” and regrettable.

The nine-person commission, which meets three to four times a year, will reconvene in another town sometime in the spring. Its upcoming agenda will include voting for a new chairperson after its former head, state Rep. Craig Tieszen, died in a kayaking accident in the south Pacific last week.

“We sure miss our chairman,” state Sen. Troy Heinert, the commission vice-chairman, said at the end of the meeting. The group had spoken about Tieszen's contributions before they got down to the day's agenda.

Contact Tiffany Tan at tiffany.tan@rapidcityjournal.com.

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