Yankton College: A controversial decision
Horticulture is one of the courses offered at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp and it is reflected in the immaculate campus.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series that looks at what happened when colleges closed in two different towns. Today, we look at Yankton College in Yankton, S.D.

YANKTON, S.D. - The campus is immaculate, tucked away in an older residential neighborhood in the center of this Missouri River town of 14,000 people.

The mostly brick and stone buildings have been maintained well and sit amid beautifully landscaped grounds with many flowerbeds and ornate shade trees. A brick and wrought-iron fence lines the campus.

The campus is surrounded by well-kept older homes along wide tree-lined streets. The high school football stadium sits across the street to the north; an elementary school to the east.

The only thing that tips a casual passerby about the nature of the campus is the signs:

"US Govt.

Property

NO

Trespassing"

And on each corner:

"Federal Prison Camp

Yankton, South Dakota"

Yankton College closed its doors in 1984 and since 1988, the former school that once boasted "South Dakota's most scenic campus" has been the home of a minimum-security federal prison.

When it opened in 1881, Yankton College was the first institution of higher learning in the Dakota Territory, which included what are now North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

It was founded by Dr. Joseph Ward, a Congregational minister, and was affiliated with the Congregational Church (later the United Church of Christ) for the duration of its existence.

Yankton closed its doors on Dec. 17, 1984, because of financial difficulties.

"It really, really was a sense of loss," said Jan Garrity, executive director of Yankton College, the nonprofit organization that was formed with the school's endowment after the campus was sold to the federal prison system.

As is the story with many small, private colleges in the Midwest, Yankton had struggled financially for many years before it finally closed.

"Realistically and frankly, the school had always had financial problems," Garrity said. "It was an uphill battle."

She said several times Yankton was saved from closing by one method or other, but "those miracles ran out."

Even so, she said the school's closing came as a shock.

"I don't think people saw it coming," she said.

After news of the closing got out, "there was a lot of anger and some vandalism," Garrity said. "It was really, really hard on the students."

With the school closed came the inevitable question: What now?

Efforts were made to find another educational endeavor to move to the campus, including a vocational technical school or a military school.

'A lot of skepticism'

But more than three years after Yankton College closed, the campus sat unused. Former South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler had worked with the federal prison system and he first brought up the idea of putting a minimum security prison there, an idea that was not universally accepted.

"There was a lot of skepticism," Garrity said.

Judi Olson, office manager and registrar for Yankton College and a lifelong Yankton resident, recalled a group called "Citizens for a Better Alternative" forming to vociferously oppose the prison idea.

Local residents worried about their land values and the safety of children, especially with an elementary school across the street.

In the end, though, the prison backers prevailed and the federal Bureau of Prisons bought the campus.

Garrity said prison officials worked hard to try to win the community over.

"It was great public relations on their part," she said. "They opened their doors to tours and they used local businesses to provide products and services."

Eventually, residents grew accustomed to having the prison in town.

"I've never heard anything bad about the prison," said Lisa Scheve, a 2000 Blair High School graduate who has been the director of Yankton's Convention and Visitors Bureau for three years. "it just becomes a part of life here."

When she moved to Yankton, Scheve admitted, "it was kind of an unsettling feeling" to know that the community also housed a federal prison.

But today, she said she is accustomed to the idea and tries to look at the advantages of having the facility in the community.

For one thing, she said, the campus is immaculate, maintained by the inmates, who can be seen mowing, digging, planting flowers and pulling weeds in their khaki uniforms.

Scheve said the inmates perform many service projects that benefit the community. Inmates built about 100 wooden Christmas displays the community puts up during the holidays. Prisoners also built her office's ornately decorated float for the annual Riverboat Days parade in August.

'They do a lot of work'

Scheve emphasized that the facility is minimum security, which means no high fences with barbed-wire, no guard towers, and no searchlights.

Most of the inmates have been convicted of white-collar crimes or are in the final portion of a drug-related sentence.

Scheve said inmates work at her office a couple of times a week, but they cannot have any contact with the public and their duties are chiefly limited to manual labor.

Inmates helped clean up a camping area at Lewis and Clark Lake near Yankton after a storm blew through this summer.

"Over time you come to realize how beneficial they are," Scheve said. "They do a lot of work for us as a community for a fraction of the cost."

She also noted that friends and relatives visit the inmates regularly and stay in local motels and eat in restaurants.

Having a prison housed on their former campus has been difficult for many Yankton College alumni to accept, Garrity said. They can't go back to visit the campus, although the prison is opened for one hour for guided tours during the alumni reunions every two years.

"In the first few years, there was a lot of resentment and hard feelings," Garrity said, and even today some alums refuse to go back to the campus.

In July, about 75 graduates took the tour of their former campus at this year's reunion, she said.

Scheve acknowledged that being the home of even a minimum security prison can skew perceptions of the community.

"Can we all say we want to be known for having a prison? It's not necessarily something you want to be known for," she said. "But when you look at the bottom line, I would imagine it would never be in jeopardy of closing."

Scheve said the prison has not been a detriment to the community as many people had feared.

"They took a bad situation and found a way to make it better," Scheve said.

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