Governor Kristi Noem’s purge of the Department of Corrections has expanded. After suspending Corrections Secretary Mike Leidholt and State Pentitiary Warden Darin Young Tuesday evening, the Governor yesterday announced that she has fully fired Warden Young as well as his deputy Jennifer Dreiske, who has worked in Corrections since 2002. Noem has also suspended Stefany Bawek, director of the state penitentiary labor camp known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates produce license plates, Braille books, signs, cabinets for Governor’s Houses, and other items. Pheasantland Industries responded to the pandemic last year by making gowns, masks, and face shields.
The atmosphere of fear within the ranks is still keeping the source of the anonymous complaint that prompted this purge and investigation and any other current Corrections employees from speaking by name on the record. But KSFY’s Beth Warden, who broke the story of deep employee dissatisfaction in Corrections back in May, has gotten one former Corrections officer, Morgan Stover, to speak publicly about problems arising from lack of staff and gear in the pen:
“Things that were going on and were being swept under the rug, so I’m very thankful to no longer work there,” said Stover.
In the area of the South Dakota State Penitentiary where Stover worked, she observed violations in allowing inmates the one-hour per day break from their cell.
“Meaning you have to escort them to shower and to rec, and if you don’t personally escort them, they just don’t shower and they don’t rec, so that was being consistently skipped on a daily basis,” said Stover.
Finding the right equipment was often an issue, putting her safety at risk.
“I oftentimes would wear a large or extra-large vest on hospital escorts because they just didn’t have a small at all,” said Stover [Beth Warden, “Former Staff Member Speaks Out After Prison Officials Put on Leave,” KSFY, 2021.07.14].
The big questions now:
- What problems and/or violations have actually taken place to motivate these firings? (Even Republican legislator Jon Hansen, R-25/Dell Rapids, says he can’t get answers on what’s going on.)
- Will the Governor fire more Corrections officials?
- What will their replacements do to resolve the alleged issues in our prison system?
- How much will the Governor and Legislature spend to fix these problems (because new hires and new gear won’t come for free)?
- Will the Governor apply her purge to other areas of state government where state employees are not provided the support they need to serve us well?
“They didn’t only neglect corrections [employees], they neglected all government employees,” said Eric Ollila, executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization,in a phone interview on Thursday, July 15.
Ollila said the low morale among DOC employees is part of a history of legislative “right-sizing” — or cutting positions and funding — at prisons and state health facilities in Redfield and Yankton [Christopher Vondracek, “Gov. Kristi Noem Fires South Dakota Prison Wardens as Scrutiny of Corrections Staff Grows,” Mitchell Republic, 2021.07.15].