Secretary of Corrections says South Dakota Women’s Prison problems ‘critical’, worst seen in career

Secretary of Corrections says South Dakota Women's Prison problems 'critical', worst seen in...
Secretary of Corrections says South Dakota Women's Prison problems 'critical', worst seen in career
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 10:59 AM MDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -When the new secretary of corrections, Kellie Wasko, spoke to us after just a few weeks on the job in April, she praised the correctional officers.

“It’s really important that the staff of this agency be elevated to the outstanding job that they’re doing with the challenges they’ve been faced with,” said Wasko.

Wasko acknowledged the vacancy rate needed to be addressed then. This week At the South Dakota Legislature’s Incarceration Construction Fund Task Force’s first meeting, she sounds the alarm, especially regarding the women’s prison in Pierre.

“Significantly understaffed. I can tell you today we are faced with staffing challenges that I don’t think I’ve seen as critical as here in my whole career,” said Wasko.

Wasko describes a unit.

“You walk into a unit that is a little bit bigger than a mobile home, and it has women stacked three cells high on this side, and then there’s seating for 30 offenders inside the unit. There’s 96 offenders housed there,” said Wasko. Due to the narrow gaps, she described needing to turn sidewalks to walk between bunks.

While overcrowding is part of the concern, another is a lack of staffing.

While correctional officers contact our I-team with stories of other states giving 25 percent raises, a 6 percent raise may not be enough for some correctional officers to stay. In April, Wasko believed more increases could be coming.

The number of incarcerated women in South Dakota is also being called into question on a national level. The prison policy initiative shows South Dakota is ahead of the national average of putting women behind bars. 232 women for every 100 thousand women, almost double the national average.

As Wasko continues to speak about the problem, she may need a whole team to help solve it, including legislators and the Governor.

Senator Reynold Nesiba wants immediate action, saying:

“I remain concerned about the excessive vacancies, forced overtime, lack of vacations, and general low morale of our DOC staff. We need to invest in our people. These are essential workers, and we need to start treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The South Dakota Legislature’s Incarceration Construction Fund Task Force’s next meeting is on August 31st.

We reached out to the South Dakota Department of corrections and Governor Noem’s office, asking about the status of leadership at the South Dakota Women’s Prison In Pierre after the firing of the warden in May. DOC spokesperson Michael Winder responded: “The former Warden, Darren Berg, was terminated May 11th. Aaron Miller, the Associate Warden, has been managing the operations of the institution. The Warden position was advertised, a candidate has been selected, and an announcement will be made in August,” said Winder.

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