South Dakota’s prison system is seeing a growing population of more dangerous inmates, and staff turnover continues to run between 30 and 50 percent among correctional officers, depending on the facility.  

The job of a correctional officer is a tough one.  From the killing of RJ Johnson to the attack on Zane Mathis, correctional officers go to work every day knowing their life could be on the line.  

But now many say that while there will always be risk, the state could do more to help them deal with the pressures.  

Over the last several months, since KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke began investigating the shortage of correctional officers and complaints of mismanagement in our prisons, she’s heard from both current correctional officers, who did not want to be interviewed on camera for fear of losing their jobs, and former correctional officers, some of whom are coming forward now.  They tell a similar story:  They fear for the safety of their colleagues and say that when they were attacked by inmates, they didn’t get the help they believe they should have received. 

In his nearly six years working behind bars at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Donald Henderson saw a lot while on duty as a correctional officer, before leaving his job last month.

“I know it sounds kind of cliche but when you say, ‘Every time I strap my boots on I know I may not come home,'”  Henderson said.

Henderson believes staff shortages and improper procedures are to blame for the problems and the public doesn’t have the full picture of what’s happening behind these walls. 

“They want to keep everything quiet.  They want to keep everything out of the news, which I understand,” Henderson said.

KELOLAND News has obtained this internal email sent to prison staff after our story on the attack of Zane Mathis aired.  In it, Secretary Dennis Kaemingk says our story did not give a complete description of the services offered to Zane Mathis after he asked for help. 

“Every time you’ve done one of these reports, there’s a memo that comes out, saying the media’s got it wrong–they don’t understand what it takes to run a prison,” Henderson said.

In this internal letter, Kaemingk also tells employees that none of  the information the DOC provided about the counseling available to Zane was included in the story.

We did report that Mathis had access to free counseling available to state employees, as well as the victim’s assistance program through the Department of Social Services.  And Kaemingk told us this:  

“Counseling is offered to each and every one of them. I can’t make them go; But we will make sure they are offered that and are fit to duty when they come back,” Secretary of Corrections Denny Kaemingk said.

But former correctional officer Dwight Montgomery says after he was attacked by an inmate, he was not initially offered counseling.

Dwight Montgomery: “I heard from special security and that’s about it.”
Angela Kennecke: “You were never offered?  They say they offer anybody who’s been attacked?”
Montgomery: “Yeah, I’ve been watching the reports and I don’t know how the secretary of corrections can say that when he’s in Pierre and not in Sioux Falls.” 
Kennecke: “So you were not offered.” 
Montgomery: “No I was not offered.”

The DOC provided us with an email from Kirk Edison, Human Resource Manager of the Penitentiary, who called Montgomery and checked in on him after he was injured and reported he was in good spirits. But there is no record of counseling being offered to him. The DOC says that employees are routinely reminded that a free employee assistance program is available.

Dwight Montgomery worked for two and a half years at the Sioux Falls penitentiary and was fired in December.  He allowed the DOC to release his personnel file to us, which shows he was fired for sexually harassing a prison employee.

Kennecke: “Now admittedly you were fired.”
Montgomery:  “Yep, yep.”
Kennecke: “And so the state is going to say you are just another disgruntled employee.”
Montgomery:  “And I don’t care if they say I’m disgruntled. I know the termination, I know what happened, and I know the right and wrongs. The main reason I want to talk is because corrections officers statewide are not getting the help we need.”

Montgomery says he needed that help after two separate incidents.  

In the first one, he was the only officer on the floor, while another officer was on shower duty, the inmate attacked. 

“He just starts punching. He hits me in the head. I’m trying to grab my radio,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery says he was injured a second time, while taking an disgruntled inmate to a holding cell. 

“We’re trying to tack him down, he’s fighting, he’s trying to spit. My hand got trapped between the bar and the inmate and he just kept pushing down. At the time, I heard it pop,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery’s wrist was broken and it required surgery.  

“I was off for a month. It would have been nice to have someone call me, ‘Hey how are you doing? Do you need any help?'” Montgomery said.

There is no record of that injury or an injury Henderson says he received in the files provided to us by the DOC.  The DOC says incident reports are not available to the public due to security reasons and personal medical privacy laws.

“It isn’t even Zane. they failed me; I got hurt on a cell injury. I had to have knee surgery. I got nothing from the pen.  Not a get well card; not a phone call to see how I was doing — no one called my wife to ask her how she was doing, if she needed anything,” Henderson said.

The DOC says any injuries Henderson sustained while on duty where not related to an inmate assault.  

But Henderson and Montgomery say the incidents took their toll.

Later, Montgomery became suicidal after his fiance broke off their engagement.  He confided in a coworker who went to his superiors and that’s when the Department of Corrections made sure he got help.

Montgomery: “It wasn’t until later when I started getting counseling that I realized that I have PTSD, I have depression.  My anxiety is really bad.”
Kennecke: “Is it from working in the prison?”  
Montgomery: “Yeah. My mom would tell you that I’m not the same person I was when I went in.” 

Henderson says he’s coming forward now because he’s concerned about the high turnover and staff shortages. 

“Most of the officers are actually doing doubles during those times to cover those shifts that the secretary said aren’t left open. There are–there’s spots every day left open–every day.  That’s why I’m here.  I’m not here to bring down the institution,” Henderson said.

DOC Secretary Kaemingk addressed that issue of open positions with us in an earlier interview:  

“We do not leave posts unattended. There may be time when someone is called away from a post; there may be a time when someone is called away from a post to respond what is doing on in another part of the facility .But our overtime will show we fill our posts,” Kaemingk said. 

Henderson believes it would take someone from outside the state to come in and make changes to assure the public and employees of their safety.  

“They really need to put the entire DOC under a looking glass,” Henderson said.  

Angela Kennecke asked Secretary Kaemingk to respond to the allegations of these former correctional officers.  And Kennecke received this email on May 20th. 
“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.”

Then in an about face – late Tuesday afternoon as we were preparing to air this story, while the Department of Corrections continued to refuse on on camera interview, it sent an email responding to questions.

Secretary Kaemingk says that Henderson and Montgomery are not credible sources and did not follow policy, and their conduct was unbecoming of a correctional officer. Henderson’s personnel file, that he allowed us to see, indicates he 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. Henderson says the personnel file we received is not complete and is missing items, including a letter of commendation he received from a previous warden.

KELOLAND News has also learned that two correctional officers were fired this spring after allegedly beating an inmate.  The Attorney General’s office confirms that it is investigating that incident, but no charges have been filed.  

Kaemingk says the DOC has added testing and more background investigation to hire better applicants as correctional officers. 

After we brought you Zane Mathis’ story, he sent a message to the governor’s office, which directed him to the warden in Sioux Falls.

He got a message from the warden’s office inviting him to come down to see the email that Kaemingk sent out about Mathis’ story on KELO to the staff. 

 He told them he would  have to bring along an attorney and he has not heard back.

Full Statements:

Kennecke: Can you please provide personnel records or give us the details on why Donald Henderson and Dwight Montgomery left their jobs at the South Dakota State Penitentiary?

DOC: Statement from Secretary Kaemingk:
“They are not credible sources and if they will give permission we would be happy to let you review their personnel records. The vast majority of our 812 DOC staff members are hard working and dedicated public servants. Unfortunately, we had a few that do not have the demeanor or aptitude to work in the stressful environment of a prison. They did not follow policy and their conduct was unbecoming of a correctional officer.  We have added testing and increased the depth of our background investigation in an attempt to hire applicants who are better suited for the work as Correctional Officers.  Safety and security in our facilities is paramount and we continue to strive to hire and train the very best.”

Kennecke: Also, both say they were attacked by inmates while on the job. What records do you have of these incidents and injuries that you can provide us?  Were they offered counseling immediately after they were attacked?  If offered counseling at what point did that happen?

DOC: These incident reports are not public due to security reasons and personal medical privacy laws. 

Supervisors check in with the well-being and that was done in these cases. A first report of injury is completed each time a staff member is injured and medical treatment is provided on-site by Department of Health staff members. If necessary, a staff member would be taken to the emergency room for treatment if the injury is serious or further examinations are needed.

Kennecke: The say the floors are short staffed and often a correctional officer can be alone when the other one has to go to shower duty or hand out medication.  Is this true?

DOC: Staffing minimums

The Department of Corrections has well established minimum staffing levels in all cell halls for security staff coverage.  We maintain staffing to at least the minimum requirements AT ALL TIMES.  During a period when we have some staff vacancies due to turnover, the minimum staffing levels on duty in each cell hall are still maintained, often through staff working overtime shifts.  Staffing is based on many factors, including the duties to be completed on the unit and is never based on staff availability. 

 Working alone

Some of the cell halls are physically large.  Correctional officers are typically spread out throughout the unit doing their rounds, counts, shake downs, pack ups and other duties physically separated from the other officers on the unit. This is how business is done in virtually every prison in the country. When multiple staff members are required for whatever reason, multiple staff will respond accordingly to assist any individual officer.    

They also say they had to work 64 to 80 hours or up to a 9 day stretch before getting the day off?  Is that the case?

DOC: A new staffing schedule featuring regularly scheduled weekend duty went into effect January 4, 2014. The schedule operates on a 10-week cycle. During each 10-week cycle, the staff member will have one 5-day weekend, one 4-day weekend and a 3-day weekend along with two other 2-day weekends. For example, an officer working Monday through Friday and the weekend has 3 days off on the following week. The days off rotate (for instance Monday-Wednesday one week, Tuesday-Thursday the next, Wednesday-Friday the next). Once every ten weeks they work nine consecutive days followed by five consecutive days off. It should be noted that each and every individual workweek is 40 hours, even during the 9 day stretch. Although it is possible to work 64-80 hours before getting a day off, the staff members are compensated by having additional days off and extended weekends when this occurs. Staff members are also able to switch with other officers and/ or ask for vacation. This schedule also has some staff working 26 less days throughout the year as the weekends are 12 hour shifts.   

Current SDSP Staffing Schedule

Week 1: Sat/Sun off

Week 2: Mon/Tue/Wed off

Week 3: Sat/Sun off

Week 4: Tue/Wed/Thur off

Week 5: Sat/Sun off

Week 6: Wed/Thur/Fri off

Week 7: Sat/Sun off

Week 8: Mon/Thur/Fri off

Week 9: Sat/Sun off

Week 10: Mon/Tue/Fri off

There are also approximately 27 posts at the State Penitentiary that are all weekends off.  Due to the weekend schedule, there are several areas of the prison that are not operating thus those areas do not require staff coverage.  There is also one unit schedule involving 18 posts where staff work no more than 3 days in a row. Those are opportunities for people to have a variety of options.

This new schedule is similar in nature to those found in the health care systems and sister law enforcement agencies.

The new schedule is generally popular with staff due to the increased number of consecutive days off.  Since implementation of this schedule, the positive feedback has been plentiful. The new schedule was implemented due to a large amount of complaints about the old schedule. The old schedule required most staff to work every weekend. The posts that had weekends off were based mainly on seniority. The complaint was that it was difficult to get one of these posts or vacation time on the weekend.  

Kennecke: They allege that turnover and vacancy rates are being manipulated by the DOC and are not telling the true story of how short staffed the facility is.  Can you respond to that?

DOC: The data we have provided you is from the Bureau of Human Resources. Turnover is calculated using active employees, not budgeted FTE.

As Sec. Kaemingk told you several times, we do not leave posts open and that we pay overtime. 

DOC: From Secretary Kaemingk:

We provided the summary of their service, including disciplinary actions and incidents with inmates, as well as their termination letters.  As we mentioned before, their personnel files also include other confidential information that we cannot release – medical information, employee names and email addresses, inmate names and numbers, social security numbers, home addresses, beneficiary information, etc. The history of incidents involving these two officers was included in the records provided to KELO. These two former officers are not credible sources. Henderson’s resignation became effective when he entered an occupied cell and tried to start a fight with an inmate.  Montgomery was terminated for sexually harassing a co-worker.  We are interested to see if KELO’s journalistic standards allow it to enable the behavior of two former employees with axes to grind.

Kennecke: Since you say Henderson was never physically injured by an attack, can you confirm that Henderson got hurt in a cell entry and had to have knee surgery? Also was he hurt during a separate cell entry where two inmates barricaded themselves in a cell and he had to have back surgery?  Do you consider those attacks by inmates and if not, why not?

DOC: An “attack” and a “cell entry” are not the same thing.  A cell entry is a planned use of force in which there is time to develop a strategic plan of action.  While it is possible for a correctional officer to sustain an injury during a cell entry, it would not be considered at “attack” unless the inmate deliberately inflicted harm.

Henderson’s release only pertained to personnel records, not to medical information, so we cannot comment on specific injuries he may have received in the course of his duties.

Kennecke: With Montgomery, he says he hurt by disgruntled inmate and when they were trying to tack him down, the inmate pushed down on his hand/wrist and it broke. Can you confirm?  Is that considered an attack?  If not, why not?

DOC: This claim is not consistent with Montgomery’s own report of the incident at the time, which stated: “While trying to restrain the inmate, my hand became stuck behind the inmate and a round metal piece on the bench.”  His report did not mention any attack by the inmate, and given his poor work history and the fact that he was terminated, we would skeptical of claims Montgomery might make after the fact.

Kennecke: Were either men offered counseling after these incidents?  If not, why not?

DOC: Yes. Correctional officers are frequently informed about the availability of the Latitude Employee Assistance Program, a free service available to them at any time that provides counseling and other services.

After each of these incidents, supervisors checked in with the officers and asked about their well-being.  Although both were aware of the availability of counseling, neither made any comment suggesting that they needed additional assistance.  The information provided to you yesterday would reflect that.