Inmates express concern amid COVID-19 outbreak at Women’s Prison

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre is currently in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, with the Department of Corrections reporting 21 inmates and 2 staff members had tested positive as of Tuesday.

This information comes as sources within the Department of Corrections (DOC) offered an insight into the conditions at the facility, telling KELOLAND News that fewer than 70% of the inmates at the Women’s Prison have been vaccinated. They say 50-60 inmates each day are sent out into the community from the Community Work Release Center before returning to the center and interacting with other units within the facility.

As of Wednesday morning, these sources said that 10 inmates were currently out in the community while waiting on pending COVID-19 test results. A mass testing event was carried out Tuesday, but results have not been announced by the DOC.

While only two staff cases are included on the latest report, DOC sources says up to five correctional officers (COs) are calling out sick every day, some of them with COVID-19.

Inmates being held at the facility shared similar concerns with KELOLAND News over the phone on Wednesday. To preserve their anonymity, the inmates will be referred to as Inmate 1, Inmate 2, Inmate 3 and Inmate 4.

During one phone call, Inmate 3 said that she was told by a CO who had tested positive for COVID-19 that they were being told to come into work despite the diagnosis. Inmate 3 said that the CO has not been to work since, but that they had told her to call her family to get the word out about conditions within the facility.

Inmate 3 says she is currently housed in the work release center in a room with nine other women. Discussing her concerns, she expressed that she and the other inmates were not provided proper disinfection materials. She said that upon asking a CO for disinfectant, she was denied and told there was a shortage of the materials, although she was eventually given disinfectant.

Asked if she and her fellow inmates were wearing masks, Inmate 3 said that each woman was only given one mask, and they were only given the opportunity to launder them twice a week. Inmate 2 also expressed concern about mask use, noting the majority of staff refuse to wear one despite the outbreak.

The inmates described a situation in which confusion seemed to spread like a virus in its own right. Inmate 3 said that differing information was given to her by multiple sources, with COs telling her about positive cases among staff and inmates, and higher up officials telling her there were no new cases.

Inmate 3 said that due in part to staffing shortages, complaints to COs had gone nowhere, and the inmates feel as though proper procedures are not being followed. Since the mass testing event on Tuesday, she said that she was aware of 15 positive cases, two of which were in women who are pregnant.

Inmate 4 expressed concern over the perceived lack of care given to virus prevention. After the mass testing event on Tuesday, she said inmates were not separated and were still allowed to mingle, sitting together and playing cards.

Asked about the feeling among the women they are currently housed with, Inmate 3 said people were “freaking out,” while Inmate 4 described the situation as “scary.”

Inmates 1 and 2 said they have both tested positive for COVID-19 and are being housed together in what they say is a disciplinary unit that they call “the hole.” Inmate 1 said that while she was not sure why “the hole” was being used for quarantine, but indicated a CO had told her it was out of necessity due to a lack of quarantine space elsewhere.

Inmate 1 outlined one of her main concerns with the quarantine system, saying that after she and Inmate 2 had been quarantining for four days, another inmate was added to their room. She said she was concerned about the addition of another inmate mid-quarantine due to the possibility of reinfection. She said the new inmate was later removed, and she believes she was placed back in general population.

Asked how she was feeling, Inmate 2 said she was frustrated. She said she was already feeling “sick and crumby,” and the lack of a clear idea of what was going on was making her uncomfortable.

Inmates 1 and 2 were also concerned with the state of their quarantine accommodations. The two said they were often not given the chance to shower until late into the night, sometimes as late as 2:30 a.m. The two said that there was no guarantee that their shower would be warm, and in their room, there was no hot water in the sink, making it difficult to properly wash their hands.

Other complaints about the Women’s Prison have been brought to KELOLAND News by way of a woman named Deanea, whose daughter is an inmate serving a three-month sentence.

Deanea says the speaks with her daughter daily.

“She called me yesterday morning and she said, ‘Mom, there’s an outbreak of COVID and now they’re moving 40 of us to the gymnasium,'” Deanea said.

She says that her daughter told her they had placed cots on the floor, and the facilities were not adequate for the number of people.

“There’s one bathroom — they have no cold water,” said Deanea. “To me, that kind of crazy. You have one bathroom for over 40 inmates to use. You’re putting cots on the floor, and they have no cold water.”

Deanea said she was told by her daughter that the inmates were given a “Gatorade bottle of cold water” to drink.

“I know there’s a pregnant girl — that girl needs more than just a bottle of Gatorade, I mean she’s pregnant for god sake,” Deanea said.

Deanea says she’s concerned for her daughter.

“She’s a good kid. She hasn’t gotten into any trouble there. She gets along with her fellow inmates — [the DOC] needs to figure this out. They need to treat these people like humans,” Deanea said.

KELOLAND News reached out to the Department of Corrections to ask for confirmation about the number of women housed in the gymnasium, the issue of access to bathrooms and the measures currently being employed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the facility.

DOC Communications & Information Manager Michael Winder responded via email.

Each facility has developed isolation and quarantine plans. When inmates test positive for COVID-19, they are isolated from non-positive inmates and we quarantine those identified as close contacts. This requires moving inmates to different housing units. Inmates are also separated for meal and med pass times.

Testing of inmates and staff is ongoing.

Staff who work directly with inmates who have tested positive are provided with full personal protective equipment. Inmates impacted are directed to wear masks.

DOC Communications & Information Manager Michael Winder

Asked in a follow-up email specifically about the inmates housed in the gymnasium, Winder replied, saying that housing shifts in the facility when individuals are determined to need to isolate or need to quarantine as a close contact. “We do not isolate individuals from proper bathroom facilities, showers, nor recreation time.”

Asked again for clarification on the gymnasium issue, Winder said, “there are currently less than 30 inmates being isolated in the gym with access to showers, water, recreation time and other necessities. Housing does shift in the facility when individuals are determined to need to isolate or need to quarantine as a close contact.”

Shortly thereafter, Winder sent a follow-up noting that as of now, there are currently around 40 inmates isolating in the gym. He said that the inmates have access to showers, water, recreation time and other necessities.

KELOLAND News also asked if the public would be receiving daily updates about the outbreak as opposed to the standard weekly data release. This question was not answered before this story was published; we will update with a response if we hear back.

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