Legislators wants answers on COVID-19 infection outbreak in S.D. women’s prison

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Several lawmakers said Thursday they want to talk with state officials about COVID-19 infections that have spread through the South Dakota women’s prison complex at Pierre.

Senator Troy Heinert said he has been working to arrange a meeting for next week between the state Corrections Commission and state Corrections Secretary Mike Leidholt. Heinert, a Mission Democrat, chairs the panel.

Representative Shawn Bordeaux said he would invite Secretary Leidholt to the next meeting of the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee on October 22. Bordeaux, a Mission Democrat, chairs the committee.

Several tribal members testified Thursday about the spread. Yankton Sioux Tribal Vice Chairman Jason Cooke said the latest numbers from the women’s site were 120 positive tests and 110 negative.

Jean Roach, a Cheyenne River Sioux member who lives in Rapid City, said she has a daughter who is an inmate. “This explosive outbreak proves negligence and incompetency,” she said.

Women in the prison want traditional materials such as sage to help heal themselves, according to Roach. She said many of them are at higher risk from COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions, but the department doesn’t grant early releases and won’t ask the pardons board.

Candi Brings Plenty, the indigenous-justice organizer for ACLU-South Dakota, said by telephone that she and one of her daughters were suffering from COVID-19. She thought she caught it from a relative to whom she was delivering soup and stayed for coffee. She said a brother and a niece caught it from her.

“In one day I had all the symptoms,” Brings Plenty said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like in the prison…I can’t imagine at all the quickness it is spreading in those (prison) units.” She is diabetic and has asthma. “It is inhumane to force our relatives to go through this in their prison cells,” she said.

Cheryl Angel, a Rosebud Sioux member, said she had been infected with COVID-19 and had temporarily lived in a tent so it wouldn’t spread to others. She criticized legislators for not trying to get immediate answers. ““Someone might die tomorrow,” she said. “This is life and death we’re talking about.” She added, “I’m worried and I’m very anxious because I know what it’s like to live with COVID-19… COVID-19 is in that facility. It’s devastating the population.”

Representative Tamara St. John, a Sisseton Republican and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, said she’s had “numerous conversations” with people about their families’ members who are in the women’s prison. She said the surrounding Pierre-Fort Pierre community could be affected.

St. John said a former inmate told her about conditions that made isolation “impossible” in the prison. She said the women have complained about “a real lack of communication” in a pandemic where there is “a lot of confusion.”

Senator Phil Jensen, a Rapid City Republican, said the chances of people dying from COVID-19 were “extremely minimal” and said it wasn’t a death sentence.

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