In South Dakota’s prisons, situation is cautious but ‘so far so good’ on COVID-19

Coronavirus

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Only one inmate of more than 3,800 in South Dakota’s state prisons has tested positive for the coronavirus COVID-19, state Corrections Secretary Mike Leidholt said Friday.

She is in isolation at the women’s prison at Pierre with mild to moderate symptoms, Leidholt said.

“She is doing well. We expect that sometime in the near future she might be released from isolation,” he said.

Leidholt told state Corrections Commission members that 165 other women who were in the same minimum-security area are being watched for symptoms.

“Yes, we have tested others. They’ve all been negative,” he said.

Nine female inmates walked away from the unit Monday, March 23. Seven have been captured. Two remain on escape status.

Leidholt spent about one hour updating commission members and answering questions.

“Our facilities are congregate facilities, so keeping people six feet apart is not possible,” he said about the federal guideline for social distancing.

Hand-washing facilities have been added for inmates and staff throughout South Dakota’s prisons but sanitizing liquids aren’t allowed, except in controlled situations, Leidholt said.

“They do contain a high level of alcohol and that can be abused by the inmate,” he said.

The prison system’s phone provider is offering two free five-minute calls per week and one free video per week, Leidholt said. 

The commission chairman, Senator Troy Heinert, said he’s been contacted “numerous times by people all over the state” about what might be happening in South Dakota’s prison system.

The Mission Democrat said one concern was inmates haven’t been reporting symptoms because they don’t want to be isolated.

Leidholt said inmates are assessed for symptoms and those showing signs are put in quarantine. The female who tested positive is kept by herself in a cell. He said other inmates didn’t seem to be shunning her. 

Leidholt said the women’s prison hasn’t had 24/7 nursing care “for years.” It uses a nurse from the state Health Department, then the Avera E-Care system, for advice whether a female needs to be hospitalized. 

Work release has been suspended, with the exception of some inmates who work in the kitchen at the Yankton minimum-security unit.

At the Springfield men’s prison, the Governor’s Home program where inmates build houses that are sold to the public was suspended but has been reinstated.

“We try to give those inmates something to do,” Leidholt said. 

Some inmates at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls are now producing face shields for healthcare providers’ use, while Springfield inmates are making cotton masks and soon will be making utility gowns. 

Visitation also has been suspended system-wide, chapel services have stopped and there have been some reductions in education programs.

“Our goal is to keep as many people from coming in from the outside as possible,” Leidholt said.

There haven’t been problems getting supplies, he said.

Heinert asked about releasing low-level offenders and those close to parole dates. Leidholt said the parole process is continuing as it has in the past, but there had been a one-week acceleration at the women’s prison to smooth the flow out and in.

“We have not talked about any kind of mass release of inmates,” Leidholt said.

The department’s position is to carry out the orders of the courts under the state’s laws, he said. No one has been released yet from the group of 165 women under watch, he added.

One change being developed is to reduce the numbers of inmates per cohort, for example from 80 to 20, so the groups are small as possible.

Parole offices are temporarily closed and some former inmates have been fitted with GPS units.

“That’s changed somewhat,” Leidholt acknowledged. “We’re still supervising them but in a different manner.” 

The secretary said he is proud of the department’s employees, whether they are line officers inside facilities who risk taking COVID-19 home to their families, or office personnel who are working from home.

“We have no legal authority to deny anybody. A local sheriff could show up at door with a COVID-positive inmate and we couldn’t say no,” Leidholt said.

Based on CDC guidelines, the department doesn’t automatically test new inmates, but they are checked for symptoms, including whether any has a fever. 

Leidholt predicted COVID-19’s impacts would increase. “I hate to be Debbie Downer, but that’s reality.” 

Heinert said the conversation that will come after the COVID-19 danger has passed will be how to do things differently in communities, schools and institutions.

“So we are better prepared if something like this were to happen again,” Heinert said. 

Leidholt said he inherited good plans from people who preceded him at the department that served as a starting point.

People in the department have been keeping records of what’s been done during the current situation, Leidholt said. 

A senior member of the department staff, Aaron Miller, said the COVID-19 situation “is not totally unique” within a prison system that’s had other health challenges in the past.

Miller said he’s participated in some multi-state phone conferences recently and he found South Dakota was better prepared than some states.

“I think we’re in a pretty good position going forward,” Miller said. 

Heinert said he’s hearing from inmates’ relatives and other constituents.

“We all know how information can get distorted or something,” Heinert said. “I don’t doubt that everybody is on edge and probably behaving a little more cautiously.”

Heinert suggested that stress is probably high among inmates and staff as they fear getting COVID-19. He asked the department to continue the information flow. 

“Even though these people are in prison, we treat them like human beings,” Leidholt said. “That’s always at the top of our mind, what’s best for them.” 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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