Beth Warden reports that Governor Kristi Noem’s promise to improve pay and working conditions in South Dakota’s prisons continues to fall short of solving the chronic staffing problems:
In July of 2021, Governor Noem announced sweeping changes for the Department of Corrections. Those working and living inside the State’s institutions had hope, but many say that hope has faded, including Eric Ollila, of the South Dakota state employees association.
“Corrections Secretary Wasco literally told the legislature that they needed more money for the correctional officers ASAP,” said Ollila. “Nothing has happened.”
Ollila hears from Correctional officers who say their years of service compressed in a new payscale gives them only a small financial bump over the new hires, and the announced pay raises are not applying to all.
“People are being told that they’re not getting 6% because they’re already at job maximum. So what the State apparently did was they didn’t move up their job max’s,” said Ollila [Beth Warden, “South Dakota Prison Officers and Inmates Say Broken Promises Lead to Frustration, Safety Concerns,” KSFY, 2022.07.08].
Angela Kennecke gets a former penitentiary guard, Brandon Balsavage, who was in the room last year when Noem came promising big changes, to say on camera that staff shortages are wearing staff out and endangering lives:
Balsavage says shortages have resulted in certain security stations, known as pods, not being staffed.
“There have been multiple occasions where they have been unmanned for an entire night. The thing that controls the whole unit has been unmanned for an entire night,” Balsavage said.
We asked the Department of Corrections about that and received a statement saying that “the DOC has several mandatory security posts throughout each facility that are manned at all times…”
“A lot of people are fatigued there. They hit their limit. If we don’t take this seriously it’s going to result in what happened in 2011,” Balsavage said.
That’s the year Correctional Officer Ron Johnson was killed in a failed prison escape [Angela Kennecke, “Whistleblower Says Prison Promises Not Kept,” KELO-TV, 2022.07.07].
Balsavage says Correction staff continue to cover up sexual harassment:
“Sexual harassment is still a big problem, mainly on overnights,” Balsavage said.
Balsavage claims that instead of reporting it, officers in charge just move people to different areas of the prison [Kennecke, 2022.07.07].
And Balsavage says he felt he couldn’t speak out about the problems in the pen unless he quit:
Kennecke: And you can’t talk unless you quit?
Balsavage: Yes, I’m scared of retaliation. I’m scared they would step out and do something. I want a lot of this stuff to change. I want people to know what’s going on. I want the truth out
Kennecke: And you’re worried things could get worse.
Balsavage: Yes [Kennecke, 2022.07.07].
Balsavage does say that sacking Warden Darin Young and replacing him with Dan Sullivan was a good move. But with problems with pay, harassment, and turnover persisting, maybe it’s time to sack someone further up the chain, like, say, a Governor who can keep promises and deliver results.