SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota received an “F” from the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU, along with 40 other states, when it comes to how COVID-19 was handled in our state prisons.

South Dakota has one of the highest incarceration rates, per capita, in the nation and crowded prisons made social distancing impossible.

As a result, at least 2,341 inmates in the state’s prisons caught the virus and seven died.

In 2016, KELOLAND Investigates revealed ongoing hazards in our state prisons, from crowding and mismanagement to high turnover among prison staff, resulting in shortages. Some of those same issues, along with the nature of the COVID-19 virus, created the perfect storm in South Dakota’s prisons. We begin this investigation when a “prison sentence becomes a death sentence.”

South Dakota’s crowded state prisons became home to one of the highest percentages of COVID-19 prisoner infection rate in the nation, according to The Marshall Project.

Sentence of less than five years ends in death

52-year-old Leslie Barse was serving a four-and-a-half year sentence for having and dealing meth.

“He had an addiction; he had a problem,” Rochelle Renville said.

Leslie’s wife of nearly 30 years, Rochelle, says his addiction also played a role in his many health issues.

“Heart, kidney, liver, diabetes,” Renville said.

Leslie Barse’s family believes he should have received special consideration from the DOC due to his underlying medical conditons

When cases of COVID-19 began multiplying in prison, Leslie requested an early release.

“When COVID came out, he said, ‘If I get this, I’m going to die from it, and I want it to be known that I wasn’t protected. He said, ‘I came here for a prison sentence, not a death sentence,'” Renville said.

ACLU asks South Dakota to make changes

In March of 2020, the ACLU called upon South Dakota to take several steps which would have allowed more inmates an early release and let out those being held on probation or parole violations, but not yet convicted. The State did not implement those recommendations.

“You might ask the question, what has the state done or what could the state do to protect those who have the higher risk of dying. The other issue is the spread of the virus and trying to contain the spread through protective measures. On both of those issues, the state has dropped the ball considerably and basically has done nothing; put into place nothing new in regard to coronavirus spread; but has just relied on existing mechanisms.”

Roger Baron, USD Law School Professor Emeritus

Roger Baron is a retired University of South Dakota law professor, who has worked to try to reform South Dakota’s prison system and reduce high incarceration rates.

“I definitely think there was a much better chance for a lower mortality rate had these steps been taken, as encouraged, back in March of 2020,” Baron said.

At least one neighboring state made changes because of the coronavirus.

North Dakota granted early release to 56 inmates, in order to protect them from catching COVID-19.

Family says DOC did little to help loved one

“My dad… He could have been here, or at least still alive,” Barse’s daughter, Jaime Anderson Renville, said.

Angela Kennecke: What do you miss most about him?
Renville: Everything. He was my best friend.

“(I) Just feel kind of robbed. It honestly did feel like they didn’t care,” Anderson Renville said.

“Reckless is the word I would use,” Del Barse said.

Del Barse says he learned his brother had fallen ill and had been sick for about a week, from his son, who was Leslie’s cellmate.

Del Barse: His breathing was funny and by funny I think I mean labored. And he was kind of delirious a little bit about it.
Kennecke: And he wasn’t taken to the hospital?
Del Barse: No, he was begging for help and the prisoners who were aware of his situation and how dire it was becoming, were banging on the windows and trying to get people’s attention to come and help him.

Eventually Leslie was removed from his cell.

“They put him in a chair and they rolled him out into the lobby and he sat there another few hours in the chair; seemingly unconscious, until the ambulance came,” Del Barse said.

Rochelle was allowed to visit her husband in the hospital before he died.

“He wanted to hear my voice one last time and tell me he loved me. He just wanted me to tell all the kids and family members, siblings, how much he loved them,” Rochelle said.

Fellow inmate dies before Leslie

Leslie Barse’s roommate in the COVID-19 unit of Avera McKennan hospital was fellow inmate, Clayton Creek.

“I looked at him, at Clayton and I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re a praying man. I’m mostly not. But I’m going to say a prayer for you. And the next time I came, he was gone,” Del Barse said.

Creek died two days before Leslie.

A voice from behind bars

Richard Woodraska is serving time for aggravated assault at the Jameson Annex at the Sioux Falls prison. He spoke to KELOLAND Investigates on the phone about what it was like behind bars during the COVID-19 outbreak. Woodraska claims too little was done to protect healthy inmates from exposure to those who were sick.

“There was one guy, his name was Clayton Creek. He was my cellie (cellmate). Clayton, he had about six months left. He was obviously an older guy at higher risk. So I feel like they should have released him. They should have let him go home,” Woodraska said.

“When we line up for chow, they would release like 60 inmates at a time for chow and there’s not enough room for that many inmates to come out. So everybody was an elbow’s distance away from one another. Everybody was like coughing; breathing on each other,” Woodraska said.

He says both he and his current cellmate got sick.

“We were both just sick as dogs. They came in and tested us. He tested positive, I tested negative. And so they put me in quarantine and let him go roam around,’ Woodraska said.

Rochelle heard similar concerns from Leslie.

“It didn’t make sense because they were moving people who had COVID with people who didn’t have it. He said to me, ‘I don’t know why they are moving us the way they are,'” Renville said.

DOC denies interview request

In an email to KELOLAND Investigates, the Department of Corrections says it activated a plan to continue operations during the pandemic with the primary focus on safety, sanitation, security and supervision. However, under South Dakota law, that emergency response plan is not public, but the DOC posted periodic updates online and says it followed the South Dakota Department of Health’s and CDC’s precautions, practices and prevention methods for COVID-19.

“The DOC activated our Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which establishes direct response and management ensuring that critical functions continue within our department. Our agency divisions and facilities identified essential function staff and operations, with the primary focus on safety, sanitation, security and supervision. Essential services such as food, laundry, medical, behavioral health, and maintenance continued in our facilities. We followed the guidance of the South Dakota Department of Health, our medical provider, and the Centers for Disease Control in regard to precautions, practices and prevention methods for COVID-19. The COOP plan is part of our emergency response plan, which is not public per SDCL 1-27-1.5 (17). Secretary Leidholt is not available for an interview.”

Michael Winder, Communications and Information Manager, South Dakota Department of Corrections.

We also asked Governor Kristi Noem if South Dakota did enough.

“I think the Department of Corrections worked very hard in partnership with our Department of Health to protect those who are in our prison system.” Gov. Kristi Noem said.

Kennecke: Do you hold the Department of Corrections accountable?
Del Barse: I think you have to. Somebody is accountable. My brother did his best in relaying every bit of information that he could to them to be protected and relating his fears to them as well, with nothing happening.

Staff contracts COVID-19

In South Dakota, compassionate parole is possible for those with terminal illness, but it has only ever been granted to three prisoners. Candidates for compassionate parole must be at least 65 years old and have served at least 10 years of their sentences. The seven inmates who died of COVID-19 would not have qualified.

In South Dakota, 191 prison staff also got the virus. All have recovered.

California had the highest number of prisoner death reported, due to COVID, at 222. But when you look at the number of total prisoners, both California and South Dakota had the same percentage of deaths, along with six other states.

DOC’s written response to friend, family concerns

When KELOLAND Investigates emailed the SD Department of Corrections about each allegation made by interview subjects in this story, we received the following response from Michael Winder:

As you know, an inmates’ personal medical information is confidential at all times, whether during COVID or otherwise. As Governor Noem said from the beginning, the science tells us that there is no way to stop the virus from spreading. We can slow it down. The Department of Corrections took every precautionary measure possible and put mitigation measures in place to slow the spread. Most recent data indicates that 99.7% of inmates have recovered from the virus, and our active cases are ZERO as of today statewide. Inmates sentenced to our care and custody are treated in our facilities by our medical provider. When the medical professionals determine that an inmate needs additional care, they are transferred to the hospital for treatment.

Compassionate parole is a discretionary conditional release from confinement of a geriatric or ill inmate pursuant to chapter 24-15A. Inmates who meet the following criteria are eligible for compassionate parole consideration (See SDCL § 24-15A-55):

1. Has a terminal illness;

2. Is seriously ill and not likely to recover;

3. Requires extensive medical care or significant chronic medical care;

4. Is at least sixty-five years of age, has served at least ten consecutive years of the their inmate’s sentence incarcerated, whose current sentences are for convictions of a Class 3 felony or below, and whose medical care needs are at least double the average annual medical cost of the inmate population; or

5. Is at least seventy years of age and has served at least thirty consecutive years of their sentence in custody; and

6. Is not serving a capital punishment sentence.

The inmate’s release plan must ensure the inmate’s health care expenses will be paid, either by the inmate or a third party payer, which shall include Medicare, Medicaid, Indian Health Service, veteran’s assistance or private insurance (See SDCL § 24-15A-58).

We proceeded with scheduled individual inmate releases. The Board of Pardons and Paroles continued to meet to make decisions on parole violations, suspended sentence violations, non-compliance, discretionary parole, earned discharge, and rescission cases as prescribed by state law.