SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Kellie Wasko has a strong desire to help people. 

The new Secretary of South Dakota’s Department of Corrections said that passion to help was reignited when she was offered the position. Wasko, finishing up her fourth week on the job, told KELOLAND News she has visited every DOC’s facility on both day and night shifts. 

“I got to meet with all levels of staff,” Wasko said. “And I have to tell you, there’s a lot of really fantastic correctional professionals here.” 

Wasko, who has an educational background in nursing, came to South Dakota from Colorado. She previously served as the Deputy Executive Director for the Colorado Department of Corrections from 2013 to 2019 but had shifted away from corrections as the CEO and President of Correctional Health Partners in Denver. 

Wasko said Colorado also has a very old prison facility (Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility built in 1871) similar to the South Dakota State Penitentiary which was built in 1881. 

“I did a lot of research on the Department of Corrections before I came,” Wasko said. “I’ve just been super impressed with the professionalism of the staff.” 

She entered the position knowing the DOC went through some extensive turnover after an anonymous complaint containing allegations of sexual harassment, nepotism, poor pay and bad equipment led Gov. Kristi Noem to fire Warden Darin Young and Deputy Warden Jennifer Dreiske. Wakso’s predecessor, Mike Leidholt, was placed on administrative leave and retired in August a month after the shakeup. 

“Kellie will bring an abundance of experience and a steady hand to the South Dakota Department of Corrections,” Noem said in a statement when Wasko’s hiring was announced.  

Complaints of high turnover, dangerous working conditions, low pay and poor morale have plagued South Dakota’s prison systems, but Wasko said worker safety is her top priority. 

Starting with the women’s prison in Pierre, Wasko said she wants to find a way to remove some of the pressure on inmates and staff. 

“First and foremost is really taking a look at the overcrowding and staff safety,” Wasko said. “There are definitely some conditions, especially within the female institution that definitely demonstrates the need for an alternative for housing female offenders.”  

Wasko also noted worker shortages are impacting all businesses and organizations. The state approved a 6% pay raise for state workers and targeted raises for correctional workers, but Wasko also noted those raises have been matched by many other states. 

“I think we still have some work cut out for us to try and lay a better path for recruitment,” Wasko said. “We really need to make corrections look like an environment where they can grow. Improve our training programs, improve the tools that we provide for them to manage the population and provide that ongoing training.” 

Eager to find solutions for overcrowding 

South Dakota’s correctional system from state prisons, county jails and juvenile centers will be part of summer studies by the South Dakota Legislature. 

Also looming is a recommendation for $600 million in changes to South Dakota DOC facilities from DLR Group, an Omaha architecture and engineering firm paid to develop a master plan for the correctional system. In that 101-page plan, a new 1,372-bed Multi Custody Correctional Facility is recommended to be built in the Sioux Falls area. 

Wasko said she is happy the discussion on both prisons and jails will be made with both in mind. 

“The jails are overcrowded, the prisons are overcrowded. And they’re funded and operated by two completely separate entities,” Wasko said. “How are we initiating conversations with each other so that we can maximize the best use of our spaces, both in prisons and in jails.” 

She is also very interested to follow the discussions and studies on the juvenile system. 

“What tools do we have that we can make communities more aware? And how can we just cut off this pipeline, from schools to prison and communities to prison,” Wasko said. 

She highlighted the importance of addressing root causes for offenders that end up in the correction system and more community-level engagement with young people, schools and parents. 

Alongside all the future discussions and conversations about South Dakota’s correctional system, Wasko said she’ll continue to keep correctional officers and wardens atop her list. 

She shared a story of how novelty stores typically honor firefighters, police and many other professions with coffee mugs or key chains. 

“You never see a mug for a correctional professional,” Wasko said. “Oftentimes, they’re the ones that are forgotten, but they’re also one of the pillars of public safety.”