U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said Friday she strongly believes in the need to quickly shut down any discussion of closing the Yankton Federal Prison Camp (YFPC).
Noem, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, stopped at the Kolberg Pioneer Trading Center in Yankton to hold what was billed as a "Listening Session on Vocational Training." She met with local leaders in the vocational fields, such as Avera Sacred Heart Hospial, RTEC and the Department of Labor.
But the prison seemed to be unavoidable.
President Trump’s recent budget proposal calls for closing two of seven stand-alone minimum security federal prisons — a category that includes Yankton. The YFPC, opened in 1988, employs 100 and houses nearly 600 inmates.
"They (federal officials) have latitude on what they want to open and close, but it’s Congress that will decide funding," she said.
Noem sent a letter last week to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions raising her concerns about the possible closure of Yankton. She wants to head off any further action on the issue.
"We need to shut down this talk. That’s why I’m so aggressive on it," she said. "We had the VA funding talk, and the Hot Springs facility was on a list for closure. Once those things happen, you’ve got to go to war."
Noem doesn’t believe that Congress will follow the Trump administration’s recommendations.
"We won’t be using President Trump’s budget. Congress makes the final decision," she said. "We just did a two-year budget, so we know the dollars we have to spend, and nothing in the president’s budget really moved the needle on how Congress feels on its priorities. We’re moving with another funding bill in March."
However, Congress’ budget control doesn’t guarantee that the Yankton Federal Prison Camp will remain open, Noem said.
"If we did our work, and Congress passed an appropriations bill, I can put in the language to shut down (the closure talk)," she said.
However, a budget deadlock between the House and Senate has resulted in the passage of continuing resolutions, she said.
Noem said she was meeting Friday with Brett Keller, the YFPC union president.
"They were supportive of me sending the letter to the attorney general in support of the camp," Noem said. "They were very disturbed that they ended up on the list of possible closures, and that’s why we are have intervened with this."
"This (possible closure) affect not just the community and its economy but also those folks who are there and their opportunity to have services and rehab at a facility like that.
"In fact, I personally know a few of them (YFPC inmates) and truly believe their time there (at the prison) has made them better persons," she said. "That’s what we need to perpetuate and not shut down."
Noem hasn’t received a response yet from Sessions or anyone else at the U.S. Department of Justice.
"They aren’t the speediest department," she said. "I’m pretty frustrated with their response time to this. I’ve been get a meeting with them regarding public safety initiatives here in South Dakota, and I would like to see something done for pilot projects, some ideas we would like to do. I’ll keep pestering them."
Noem asked the roundtable participants if they wanted to see the federal prison camp remain in Yankton. She said she had received comments from two people who didn’t want to see the prison continue operation.
The Yankton leaders provided a resounding "yes" to the question. They emphasized that the prison’s closure "would be devastating" to the inmates, the community and the region.
Besides the prison, Yankton officials touched on the demand for housing particularly affordable housing, workforce development and the need to keep workers that are in Yankton. Housing obviously plays into keeping workers in the area. Noem even mentioned learning that the cost of living in Sioux Falls is in some cases cheaper than living in Vermillion.
"We have to think outside the box because we’re not meeting our workforce needs right now," Noem said. "A lot of my ideas are tying our poverty programs into workforce training, because if you have somebody that’s on a poverty program and you connect them with an employer, and we as a state make sure they get through their tough time — that does change their life forever."
However, one of the points that kept being mentioned was how to increase the accessibility of young members of the community to reach vocational training and what needs to be improved.
The overall consensus from the panel pointed to earlier introduction into vocational opportunities, like a shop class in middle school rather than high school. RTEC director Josh Svatos focused primarily on the topic.
"With a bonafide career in technical education track, I think you’d see more kids taking part. You have to introduce it to these kids in their middle school years," he said. "
Noem seemed receptive to the input from the community members, although touched very little on her plans moving forward in the early stages of her campaign.
"This was really great insight for me to hear some of the things that I can be pursuing to help Yankton out," Noem said. "I loved the affirmation they gave me that we need to focus more on middle school and high school, and the two-track system is something I’m going to dig more into."
A main concern was the perceived shame that some students view vocational work as having, and the members of local industry mentioned that greater training will increase awareness.
"My focus is that we need to expose these kids in middle school and high school to some of these opportunities for skilled training and we get kids talking about taking advanced placement classes, so by the time they get out of high school, they’ve already finishing a year (of higher education)," Noem said. "We should give these kids the same kind of opportunities in high school, so when they come out, they’re already halfway to a certification. They’re just not given that opportunity."
Follow Ben Wheeler on Twitter, @BenWheelerPandD, and Randy Dockendorf, @RDockendorf.