PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The higher pay that the governor announced last week for uniformed security personnel at South Dakota’s state prisons didn’t involve the Legislature allocating any more money.

Instead, the increases reflect rearranging the same total amount of money to pay more to many of the security staff, according to state Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko.

In a briefing Wednesday to members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, the panel that oversees state government’s budget, Wasko said the money was available because 137 of 519 uniformed security positions were vacant.

The high turnover occurred in spite of a variety of attempts in the past year or so to make security positions more attractive in the state Department of Corrections.

Among them were higher starting pay for a security officer to $20 per hour from $17.89 effective July 1, 2021, offering a variety of other incentives within the Department of Corrections, and providing a 6% across-the-board increase to all state government employees on July 1, 2022.

The additional changes that Governor Kristi Noem unveiled last week called for further increasing starting pay for a first-year security officer to $23.50 and paying up to $28.09 per hour. The department also expanded pay ranges for other officers: Corporals now get $24.68 to $28.09; sergeants $27.15 to $30.91; and lieutenants $28.50 to $33.71.

Noem spent months trying to get to the bottom of the corrections mess. She appointed Wasko in February.

Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, noted that changes in state government’s health insurance plan might have contributed to the prison system’s skyrocketing turnover rate. “It was a kick to people already down and an encouragement to go look somewhere else,” he said.

Nesiba said Nebraska starts its pay at $28 per hour. He asked Wasko, “Why are South Dakotans getting underpaid?” Wasko’s answer revealed that she didn’t want to use funds she didn’t have. Nesiba said she came into a deeply troubled department but state government has been putting tens of millions of dollars into reserve.

Nesiba asked why South Dakota can’t be a national leader in prison-staff pay. Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican who chairs the committee, defended Wasko: “From what I’ve from the secretary, that is her goal.”

But Karr acknowledged that he doesn’t know yet whether the latest round of increases will solve the department’s security-staffing shortages. Wasko repeated that this plan uses all of the available money.

“This is the money that’s left in the pot?” Karr asked. “That is correct,” Wasko answered.

Karr told Wasko he wants to see a plan. “If you don’t have an answer. that’s okay. We’re all in it together,” Karr said. Wasko said she was in the field with staff when the announcement came out Thursday. “I can’t grant money trees in the front yard,” she said.

Wasko said the department will continue to pay double-time rates to staff who voluntarily cover open shifts and new training curriculum has been brought in since her arrival last winter. She said the department previously had been taking people off the street and putting them in security positions without training. “I stopped that,” she said. “They don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do.”

Wasko described South Dakota’s corrections system as struggling against outdated physical plants, lack of training, low pay, poor equipment and no staffing plans until lately. “It’s the totality of corrections in South Dakota,” she said. “I’m getting a much better idea of the embedded issues.”

Representative Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, asked Wasko how she measure the effectiveness of the latest round of pay raises. Wasko said it would depend on hires and turnover rate.

Senator Margaret Sutton, a Sioux Falls Republican, told Wasko, “I applaud what you’re doing and would not want to be in your position right now.” Sutton asked how many of the 137 openings can be addressed. Wasko said they could all be filled and she hopes they are. “The staff are what make me optimistic,” Wasko said. She added, “137 is just what we have vacant. It’s not what we need.”

That brought Duba back into the conversation: What do we need? Wasko gave a complicated answer that involved the need for a new female facility and a new male facility, plus a relief factor for the current staff. But she didn’t give a number.

Representative Tina Mulally, a Rapid City Republican, asked whether more people could get out of prison. People are coming back to prison at a faster rate, Wasko said. She laid it in part at the feet of no programs and no addiction counseling.

“We are not addressing the underlying monsters,” Wasko said.