It can be a dangerous job and staff shortages have made it even tougher, with longer hours and more demands.
South Dakota prisons have been dealing with rising turnover rates for the last three years. Part of it can be attributed to the worker shortage and the remote location of some of the facilities. But our KELOLAND News investigation has uncovered other allegations about personnel and safety issues brought forward by former and current correctional officers.
KELO’s Angela Kennecke traveled to Springfield, Rapid City and Pierre to bring you stories about how the prisons were dealing with complaints, shortages that lead to corrections fatigue, and other safety issues.
The turnover at the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre is now at 50 percent – the highest number we’ve seen.
We also talked with a former correctional officer here in Sioux Falls, Zane Mathis, who told us after his brutal attack by an inmate he reached out for help, and it was not made immediately available.
Another former correctional officer claims the Department of Corrections isn’t giving the public the full picture when it comes to turnover at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
The Department of Corrections reports being down by 12 officers last week. Former Correctional Officer Donald Henderson created one of those vacancies by quitting a few weeks ago. He claims that number is actually much higher.
“It was always puzzling to me how they came up with their statistics; like the turnover,” Henderson said.
The turnover rate at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls is now 34 percent, about 12 percent high than last year, according to the state.
Henderson tells KELOLAND News that correctional officer academies were held five times a year to train an average of 10 new officers per class. He says in his six years, he saw most of them leave.
“In the six years, almost six years, that I’ve been there–we’re shorter now than we’ve ever been. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out when you have the sergeants, the white shirts, working doubles and working their days off to work rec, or on a floor or do hospital transports–that kind of stuff. They’re there and working overtime for a reason. We don’t have the bodies to fill it,” Henderson said.
In an earlier interview, KELOLAND News asked Secretary of Correction Dennis Kaemingk about the ongoing prison staff shortages.
Angela Kennecke: “Does that indicate a problem to you?”
Dennis Kaemingk: “No you have to take it in the whole context, of people coming and people leaving–people finding other opportunities. It is a difficult market right now for staffing.”
Henderson says it’s a dangerous job and not for everyone, but that it becomes a vicious cycle when there are not enough officers to go around.
“Another reason people are leaving is the grueling schedule they’ve come up with,” Henderson said.
Henderson says that means working between 64 and 80 hours before getting days off. The Department of Corrections implemented a new 10-week staffing cycle a couple of years ago that gives officers more days off in a row. The DOC says it compensates staff who work up to 80 hours before getting a day off with an extended weekend. Despite the schedule, most officers don’t work more than 40 hours a week.
But Henderson says working so many days in a row leads to corrections fatigue and even more problems.
“You get hiccups. You get officers assaulted because we don’t have the staff,” Henderson said.
KELOLAND News asked the Department of Corrections to respond to Henderson’s claims about staff shortages, the accuracy of the vacancy and turnover numbers for correctional officers and scheduling of officers. In an email sent to Angela Kennecke on May 20th regarding this story, Secretary Dennis Kaemingk said that quote:
“Warden Young or I would be willing to speak to someone from KELO, but due to your unbalanced and unfair reporting, we will not be interviewing with you. Your pursuit in this direction is causing safety and security concerns within our facilities.”
However, in an about-face late Tuesday afternoon, just as we were preparing to air this story, the Department of Corrections sent answers to our questions and with their permission, personnel files of Henderson and another former officers we will hear from now. Henderson had been disciplined for being confrontational with co-workers and an inmate – after he turned in his resignation and he was not allowed to continue working for the typical notice period.
In tonight’s EYE on KELOLAND investigation, we’ll hear from Henderson who says he was seriously injured by inmates twice and from another former correctional officer who was injured on the job. Both men say they were not initially offered counseling to deal with the incidents. The DOC says employees are routinely reminded that a free employee assistance program is available.