PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Department of Corrections is taking a new direction under new secretary Kellie Wasko.

She explained some of those approaches Wednesday to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Health care services will be moved into DOC. The department has been contracting with the state Department of Social Services for mental health and the state Department of Health for physical services.

“Yet at the end of the day, the responsibility for delivery of constitutional care for offenders falls back on the secretary of corrections,” Wasko told lawmakers.

She predicted the change would “bring great efficiencies” to the department and allow for greater accountability for the care being delivered.

“I can review data and react, I think, more efficiently and effectively when I have that person sitting right there at my table as an executive member of my executive team,” Wasko said. She added, “I really want to get a better grasp on what are we doing for them while they’re here.”

Wasko said she’s been in close contact with Health Secretary Joan Adam and Social Services Secretary Laurie Gill. “And we are all in agreement that this is a necessary move. We will work together to accomplish it,” Wasko said, referring to it as “a zero-sum transfer.”

“This is really going to be a transfer of FTE only,” she explained, using the government acronym for full-time equivalent positions. “To that point, we’re not looking at a budget request. It’s going to be FTE authority only.” 

Wasko will make a similar presentation Thursday to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Governor Kristi Noem hired her to start in March after then-Secretary Mike Leidholt took early retirement. The department has gone through a variety of shake-ups and changes in many of its top personnel during the past year.

The governor also contracted for a 101-page facilities plan and a 54-page outside study that generated six chapters of analysis and recommendations. Wasko said she’s started making changes, such as adding an inspector general, realigning the department’s executive team, bringing on a director of the prison and having a policy compliance coordinator.

The Legislature this year approved the governor’s recommendations of starting pay of $20 per hour for corrections guards and a 6% pay increase, atop various incentives that were put in place last year. Wasko said Wednesday she wants to do more for staff inside facilities who have stayed with the department for decades.

She noted that policies previously weren’t maintained in a central location: “The process was left up to each individual institution, so each individual institution was functioning under their own operating measures if you will.”

As for past training, she said people did the best they could but much of what was provided didn’t meet modern requirements. “Although South Dakota does not have prisons accredited, we can still follow best practices that’s outlined by accreditation,” Wasko said.

The women’s prison at Pierre is badly overcrowded, with as many as nine inmates in a cell, while the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls has more male inmates needing higher security than there are appropriate cells. She said only 7% of female inmates received substance-use treatment last year because there wasn’t room for more programming.

That’s one of the reasons Wasko said she prefers adding a 200-bed facility for women, rather than two 100-bed sites as recommended in one of the reports because it would be easier to provide group substance-use services in a difficult labor market.

She also wants fences around the minimum custody institutions to ensure that the communities are safe.

“But I just can’t get behind not re-purposing where we can re-purpose and really put our dollars where we absolutely need them for safety and security rather than, you know, aesthetics,” she said. “There’s things that we could do operationally that will make the facilities operate a little safer, than just tearing them down and creating new physical plants.”