SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A year ago this month, Governor Kristi Noem fired top officials at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls and replaced the Secretary of Corrections, after getting an anonymous complaint that included allegations of sexual harassment, nepotism, poor pay, and bad equipment. Three months ago, a review of the Department of Correction was complete and indicated the need for better safety, less turnover, and the need to deal with issues of harassment and a hostile work environment.

Now our KELOLAND News Investigation looks into just how much has been done to resolve the issues that we have exposed for years in our prisons. A whistleblower had come forward to say that prison promises were not kept.

Brandon Balsavage started working as a correctional officer at the State Penitentiary in 2019.

Brandon Balsavage worked as a correctional officer at the South Dakota State Penitentiary for three years

“I’ve always had a liking for law enforcement and corrections. I want to do more with my life. I enjoy helping people,” Balsavage said.

Six months into the job, an inmate attacked him.

“An inmate grabbed me by the neck and started stabbing me in the face, right here, closer to my artery right here. If it would have been a half-inch down, or a quarter-inch down, I would be dead right now.”

Balsavage says it was the prison’s lack of following basic safety protocol that put him in the situation in the first place.

“It is a dangerous job and can happen any time, but how this happened, I was going up to open the door, the doors are supposed to be secure at the ends of the hallways, they are supposed to be secure by policy and they were not,” Balsavage said.

Allen Janis received an additional 50-year sentence for attempted murder in the attack of Balsavage

Balsavage’s attacker Allen Janis, who is serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery, pleaded guilty to attempted murder in the incident and was sentenced to another 50 years. Janis had a history of violence behind bars. In 2014 Janis pleaded guilty to sliming or assault by an inmate.

“Nothing changed after that day. The doors being closed, they enforced that for about two months, and to this day, those doors are still open,” Balsavage said.

Following the attack, Balsavage left his job, only to return a couple of months later. He was hopeful when he heard Governor Noem was making changes.

“The changes weren’t happening, so when Noem had a sit down with us she talked about everything that was happening; what she wanted to change,” Balsavage said.

Noem spoke at a July 2021 news conference about her meeting with staff in Sioux Falls.

Gov. Noem: I was very clear in the other room that everybody is being evaluated, every single person and especially those in leadership.
Kennecke: And just here at this facility, or throughout…
Gov. Noem: Throughout the Department of Corrections.

Several people in leadership positions were ousted. State Penitentiary Warden Darin Young was replaced by Dan Sullivan.

Balsavage liked him right away.

Dan Sullivan is the new warden at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls

“I think that is the one positive thing is having someone who is being upfront. One positive change is getting new leadership in here,” Balsavage said.

But Balsavage says one of the hot button issues, sexual harassment, something Warden Young was accused of, is still happening.

“Sexual harassment is still a big problem, mainly on overnights,” Balsavage said.

Balsavage claims that instead of reporting it, officers in charge just move people to different areas of the prison.

“They’re not going to forget the promises that were made,” Ollila said.

Erick Ollila is executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Association, which is a voluntary association for state workers.

Kennecke: So the governor coming in saying I’m going to do this–we’re going to replace the top brass–isn’t enough?
Erick Ollila: It’s not enough. There needs to be action after the words. They need to feel the goals were met, the promises were kept; what was said actually happened. And they know when it hasn’t.

Balsavage says correctional officers are not getting self-defense training.

“And this year, nobody got that, defensive tactic training– even the new people coming in didn’t get the defensive tactics because they didn’t want to put on the class due to all the other stuff going on.

In her letter to lawmakers addressing the prison review, Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko said the DOC was “Addressing equipment needs by procuring appropriate ballistic vests and “addressing equipment needs by ordering enough right-hand and left-hand gun holsters.”

However, Balsavage says there still isn’t enough of either one to go around and points to a time when he had to use the wrong gun holster to transport an inmate to court.

“I can’t do anything with a left-handed, because that’s a risk to everybody else. I’m not trained in a left-handed belt so I can’t use that. And I’m forced to use that,” Balsavage said.

“The employees are at their wits end. They want to serve. But their conditions are getting so restrictive for the employees and dangerous. The system is frayed and about ready to break. Lives are at stake,”

Erick Ollila, Executive Director, South Dakota State Employees Association

High turnover and staff shortages continue to plague South Dakota’s prisons.

If you look at individual facilities, the South Dakota Women’s Prison has nearly a third, or 29% (29.33%) of its positions open.

The employee turnover rate at the women’s prison is approaching 58% (57.42 %)

“If you have turnover of around 60%, your working conditions are going to be pretty terrible, Eric Ollila, Executive Director of the South Dakota State Employees Association, said.

At the penitentiary in Sioux Falls, (22.46%) more than 22% of positions are going unfilled and the turnover rate is nearly 30%. (29.83%) KELOLAND Investigates has learned that has led to a change in vacation policies for correctional officers.

“It’s really up to the state if they’re going to get that time off now. Tops were blown amongst the employees for sure when this new policy came out. Each time they get more desperate. And then they get a job somewhere else,” Ollila said.

To try to prevent that, the DOC bumped its starting pay for correctional officers from $17.89 an hour to $20 per hour and offers a $1,500 bonus if someone stays for a full two years.

The same job at the Minnehaha County Jail pays $23 per hour and $24 for those working the night shift, plus a $4,000 bonus if they work for 3 years in the jail.

“You’re a professional correctional officer, you want to serve the state and you love your job, but it’s ludicrous for you to stay with the state when you can go to the county and make more money immediately,” Ollila siad.

Balsavage says shortages have resulted in certain security stations, known as pods, not being staffed.

“There have been multiple occasions where they have been unmanned for an entire night. The thing that controls the whole unit has been unmanned for an entire night,” Balsavage said.

We asked the Department of Corrections about that and received a statement saying that “the DOC has several mandatory security posts throughout each facility that are manned at all times…”

“A lot of people are fatigued there. They hit their limit. If we don’t take this seriously it’s going to result in what happened in 2011,” Balsavage said.

That’s the year Correctional Officer Ron Johnson was killed in a failed prison escape.

Balsavage says he resigned in hopes of preventing that from happening to someone else.

Kennecke: And you can’t talk unless you quit?
Balsavage: Yes, I’m scared of retaliation. I’m scared they would step out and do something. I want a lot of this stuff to change. I want people to know what’s going on. I want the truth out
Kennecke: And you’re worried things could get worse.
Balsavage: Yes.

Balsavage sent a letter to everyone in the Department of Corrections outlining the problems he discussed with us here.

We asked for an on-camera interview with DOC Secretary Wasko, to address the concerns and what the DOC is doing in response to the issues discussed in the prison review, but we were denied. The DOC issued KELOLAND Investigates the following statement:

Since Secretary Wasko’s arrival, we have made quite a few changes in addition to the things in the attached letter. We have several security upgrades and safety gear enhancements in the works, including radio equipment, fence systems, cameras, mail scanners, and metal detectors. We have implemented several policy and internal organization changes pursuant to the CGL report’s recommendations. We also worked hard to secure legislative approval for pay increases, including a 6% pay increase for all employees and raising the starting wage to $20/hour, effective July 1. The state sets salary policy annually and must submit any pay increases to the legislature for funding approval. Secretary Wasko is very proud of the hardworking people at the Department of Corrections. We have made major changes in the last year and we know there is more work to do, and she believes our employees are up to the task. If folks are interested in joining our team, we would love to talk to them more about career options in the Department of Corrections.

MIchael Winder, South Dakota Department of Corrections Spokesperson