SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – South Dakota lawmakers and Governor Kristi Noem have approved a large sum of money to go towards expanding the state prison system.
$60 million is going towards a new women’s prison in Rapid City and $271 million will go towards the replacement of the State Penitentiary that houses men in Sioux Falls. However, a lack of room in the facilities isn’t the only issue inmates are facing.
Rebecca Shaw was recently released from the women’s prison in Pierre after serving nine months for drug possession charges. She says the biggest issue she saw while in custody was overcrowding.
“I was housed in the gym while I was in intake with 30 other women, our bunks were in there,” Shaw said.
Because they were sleeping in the gym, Shaw said rec time for everyone was limited.
“So we went without rec for, I didn’t see outside for the whole four months I was in the D Block unit,” Shaw said. “When I got moved out into the minimum unit, I was able to go outside but we didn’t have very much rec at all.”
Even in the minimum unit Shaw saw overcrowding.
“We had three women to probably an 8×8 area, like little stalls lined up. Three bunks high. I was top bunk so my head touched the ceiling. Three showers for, there was 120 women in the unit that I lived in. So you got three showers on each side, obviously not enough, three toilets,” Shaw said.
The last recorded population numbers for the prison system is from January of this year. At the end of the month, there were 307 women in the Pierre prison and 180 in the Pierre minimum center. An outside study done in 2021 found that the recommended occupancy for the women’s prison is 322.
“I witnessed, you know, severe gang violence, overcrowding, girls get in arguments because you don’t have enough room for nothing. I mean, get a little tiny locker to put your stuff in and that’s all. A lot of thieving going on. It’s just chaos,” Shaw said.
LS: “Was there a lot of effort to fix that from correctional officers or?”
“No. No, not at all. I mean, the correctional officers, there’s so minimal staff there that it’s hard for them to even control the – the women, the inmates,” Shaw said. “They get yelled at, they get harassed by the inmates. They could easily be overpowered and it’s kind of scary for a staff member, you know.”
Shaw says the problems inside the prison walls went beyond overcrowding.
“I never once seen a heart doctor. I have a pacemaker defibrillator in my chest and I had some problems with it, went to the hospital,” Shaw said. “Staff didn’t know what to do, the nursing didn’t know what to do. So they just left me untreated. I never seen a cardiologist or anything. I filed grievances, I filed many, many grievances. My grievances never got answered.”
Food service and commissary
There’s also a high population at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, but for Kristina Kopejtka, a mom of a current inmate, her biggest concern is the food being served to her son.
“One week he told me that they had scalloped potatoes and ham three times in one week. And on the last night that they had it, it smelled so awful that nobody could eat it,” Kopejtka said.
In a letter to the Department of Corrections, Kopejtka and other parents of inmates questioned the quality of food in the prison. The letter also mentions a cut to the maximum amount of money inmates can spend each week at the commissary, or prison canteen. Inmates used to be able to spend $40 a week, now it’s $25.
DOCUMENTS EMBEDDED FROM PARENT LETTER
“They have to supplement with that commissary. So diminishing the commissary amounts and even the money in their accounts and even the care packs that we’re able to send can really affect them if they’re hungry,” Kopejtka said.
Kopejtka received a letter back from Kellie Wasko, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. In it, Wasko tells Kopejtka that the commissary was lessened to assist with space limitations and sanitation efforts.
“I mean, this just happened this year, he’s been in there three years and now all of a sudden space is an issue? I just don’t know if I believe it but,” Kopejtka said.
As for quality of food, Kopejtka was told her concerns were brought forward to facility administration.
“I know I told the other parents that it was pretty much what I expected. A lot of reiteration of policy, some excuses and some of the raising of concerns or alerting other entities,” Kopejtka said.
DOCUMENTS EMBEDDED FROM DOC LETTER
Terry Liggins is an advocate for inmates trying to get back on their feet after a prison sentence. He says another issue is the lack of programming for inmates in the South Dakota prison system.
“Part of the challenge is there isn’t enough true rehabilitation happening at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Liggins said. “It’s in their mission that individuals, when they go in there, they should be experiencing rehabilitation services. And there are some services there, there is some help happening, but not near enough that could be happening and should be happening to ensure that when people get out of prison, they’re actually better in their minds, they’re better with their emotional intelligence and better in their psychological mindset.”
The Department of Corrections reports that 95 percent of all South Dakota inmates will eventually be released.
“And some, like my son, may be in there until 40, until he’s 40. He wasn’t handling 22 real well out in the real world, what’s he gonna do at 40 as far as budgeting, grocery shopping, you know, look how technology is changing, you know, they don’t have access to really any of that in there,” Kopejtka said.
Kopejtka’s son, Jameson Mitchell, is in prison on manslaughter charges. Rebecca Shaw was incarcerated for drugs. But they say behind each inmate’s crime is a person.
“They get out of prison and they’re parents, they’re moms and dads, they’re brothers and sisters, they’re uncles, they’re community members, they’re future employees,” Liggins said.
“And again, they maybe had a really bad night, you know, and now are paying for that for the rest of their lives. It just really makes you think not to be so judgmental,” Kopejtka said.
“Everybody deserves a chance,” Shaw said. “Just because we go to prison doesn’t mean we’re a bad, evil person. It means that we broke the law and we have to face our consequences for that regardless if it’s drugs or violence or whatever. We all deserve the same opportunities.”
KELOLAND News requested an interview with the Department of Corrections and received an emailed statement back. Most of the topics discussed in the statement deal with changes for correctional officers. Below is the full statement from Michael Winder, a spokesperson for the DOC:
The Department of Corrections has taken great steps to improve the workplace culture and safety for both staff and inmates at our state prisons. Secretary Wasko updated the Legislature on preliminary steps in this letter last year, and many large steps have been taken since then including:
- She worked with the Governor and the Legislature to secure funding for two modern prisons that will be built in the coming years. This will improve both the success and safety of our prison system;
- She has championed better pay for corrections officers, raising the starting pay from about $17.89-per-hour in April of 2022 to more than $25 per hour this July;
- Implemented a department wide reset training for over 1,000 people who work in state facilities and created a new basic training academy;
- Purchased all new modern radios, tasers, upgraded restraints for inmate movement, and has taken other steps to improve safety;
- Created a parole absconder apprehension unit, improved communication with law enforcement, and installed security fences around minimum centers to keep communities safe;
- During 2022, we put our food service contract out for bid. Aramark was awarded the contract in September, and they took over food service the next month. Aramark put in place a new heart healthy menu for offenders. The quality of the food has improved and the complaints we receive from offenders has decreased. We have begun making changes in the items available through the commissary system and have met with a group of inmates for their input as we move forward;
- Updated uniforms, got all employees state email addresses, and is creating staff break rooms to improve working conditions;
- New hires at the men’s prison in Sioux Falls are outpacing resignations and retirements; Integrated and transferred medical and behavioral health into corrections from the Departments of Health and Social Services to streamline those services;
- Instituted a community standard of care policy and initiated the treatment of inmates for Hepatitis C; and,
- She enhanced the mother-baby unit at the women’s prison to allow up to 30 months with their infants to help give these mothers hope for a better future.