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Prison Staff Still Underpaid, Overworked, and Subject to Unaddressed Sexual Harassment

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.


  1. Loti 2022-07-09 09:32

    What is concerning is that Meth addiction is becoming common. It will continue to rise and the victims of Meth will continue to fill the prison. These victims will not get treatment. This is a huge concern for Native American families and all other Races too. We somehow must confront this by going Not going into denial. Our young people may one day be victims too, then what? We are not immune.

  2. 96Tears 2022-07-09 11:35

    Republican Governors and their Republican pals in the legislature have shown again and again since Bill Janklow’s first term as Governor they are incompetent managers of the state penal system and the state justice system. Sloppy politics always creeps in, creating the long standing truth that the inmates run the prison, not the guards. The result is usually dead and injured guards and inmates and an endangered public.

    Noem is very lucky to have avoided big disasters — so far. She seems to ignore the fact that the prison system is a hot tinder box and that waving a magic wand won’t make bad news reports and far worse disasters go away. Anyone tracing the string of disasters back to the 1981 prison riot and fire and Bill Janklow’s decision to let Rocky Anthony Blair out into the public will recognize a repeated pattern of incompetence followed by horrible disasters.

    It would make an interesting litany to do some research and tell the whole story of foolish and deadly decisions made from a 2nd floor office at 500 E. Capital Avenue in Pierre.

  3. All Mammal 2022-07-09 19:55

    All that loot paid to an out of state firm to evaluate and suggest spending a bazillion dollars did nothing but waste time. Prison guards and inmates deserve to be safe. Women inmates are being raped by CO’s and then wind up dead in their cells right before testifying at trial. Native employees are discriminated against and have their own coworkers plot against them. What if a fire broke out while the pods had no guard? If we cannot keep them safe, turn them loose. Like Todd County used to have to do every morning in the summer months because of the heat and lack of air conditioning. Every evening, they rounded up all the inmates for the night… what else do you do when the jail can’t guarantee not to cook a person? Our governor disregards her responsibility to the one most important thing there is: people. She abuses employees and convicts. She is committing human rights violations and loves it. Stuff her in a cell with rapey guards and no supervision or basic bare necessities. She would need to dim the camera lights because it would not be a pretty sight.

  4. grudznick 2022-07-09 19:56

    The whole bunch needs to be sacked, hats in hands or not. Banish them all from every being employed there again and then hire new people for $10 an hour more. None of the old whiners allowed.

  5. MD 2022-07-11 14:15

    If you can’t afford to staff the prisons, maybe you need to address why you are filling the prisons.
    South Dakota is incarceration happy, and the outcomes don’t match the cost. It is a way to oppress people not a way to improve society.
    Do better SD

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