SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A federal class action lawsuit is calling for the Walworth County Jail to be shut down.
The lawsuit says on behalf of current and future inmates, county commissioners and others are violating their constitutional rights by keeping it open. Our KELOLAND News Investigation has been looking into the allegations and has uncovered evidence that the Walworth County Commission had been warned about the dangers for years.
The Walworth County Jail was built in 1909 in Selby. According to the federal class action lawsuit, county officials have been warned by their own experts that the jail is “outdated, grossly inadequate, and dangerous. “
County Warned About Dangers
Those issues were brought to the Walworth County Commission by a jail consultant with the National Institute of Corrections in 2017.
“I am shocked about the conditions of the facility and more so the working conditions for the employees. I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest with you,” Brad Hompe, consultant for the National Institute of Corrections, told the Walworth County Commission on June 7, 2017.
“It’s time to drain the swamp and that jail is the swamp,” Rapid City Attorney Jim Leach said.
Leach is one of the attorneys who filed the class action lawsuit, which alleges various civil rights violations of prisoners, including illegal strip searches.
“They strip search everyone on camera, record it, so that the person’s nakedness is visible to anyone who watches it, which of course includes people of both genders. They were told point blank by consultant they hired three years ago that is a violation of federal law and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It still goes on today,” Leach said.
Jail consultant Hompe warned the commission about those searches at the June 2017 meeting.
“They’re being stripped search in a cell with a camera. Highly inappropriate,” Hompe said in commission meeting on June 7, 2017.
Fire Hazard at Jail
According to the suit, in 2014, the Selby Fire Chief warned commissioners about the fire dangers in the jail. That warning was repeated in 2017 by a former correctional officer at a maximum security prison.
“If there’s a fire in that place, you may be able to unlock one of the windows on the inside, but how do you even get to the outside. I was told the roof on the garage, the firemen wouldn’t even go up there,” the former correctional officer told commissioners on October 17, 2017.
“The county commissioners got told in 2017, if there’s a fire in that jail, people are going to burn to death,” Leach said.
Voters Reject New Jail
In 2018, Walworth County voted down a $10.5 million bond issue for a new jail. Even so, county commissioners were warned by Walworth County State’s Attorney Jamie Hare that they could be held personally liable for issues at the jail if they don’t make changes.
“Honestly, you’re all on the hook right now. If I were the attorney, you guys would all get sued. Right now. If something happens that’s been disclosed in that report, you’re all going to be on the hook for being sued. We’re still operating a facility that has some issues that you’re all aware of,” Hare said at a commission meet on August 21, 2018.
The federal lawsuit isn’t seeking any money in damages.
“It’s going to be up to the county on whether they want to just shut it down, or whether they want to build a new jail that’s adequate and safe for not just the prisoners, but also for the guards,” Leach said.
County Made Some Changes
KELOLAND Investigates reached out the Walworth County State’s Attorney for a response to the lawsuit. Hare told us he cannot discuss any pending litigation, but did tell KELOLAND Investigates that the county made some changes based on Hompe’s report in 2017, especially with the number of personnel at the jail. However, he said it wasn’t possible to follow every recommendation.
Walworth County settled two lawsuits in recent years filed by inmates who claimed they didn’t receive proper medical care in the jail. Another lawsuit against the jail is still pending.
An attorney for the plaintiffs in the new federal suit has requested a federal investigation into the Walworth County jail by the U.S. Department of Justice.