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State prison staff want corrrections secretary out

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – For the past several years, ongoing staffing and safety concerns at the state’s penitentiary has been front page news. It resulted in pay raises and other promised changes within the system as well as the appointment of a new Secretary of Corrections, Kellie Wasko in 2022.

In that role for less than two years, a collective of South Dakota State Penitentiary employees are now calling for her removal in a letter sent to Gov. Kristi Noem.  Among complaints are multiple reports of employees at the South Dakota Penitentiary being assaulted by inmates.

Attorney General Marty Jackley says when it comes to those crimes, his position is clear.

“That is a firm position of no tolerance. Corrections officers have a dangerous position. They need to be treated with respect,” said Jackley. “There are dangerous individuals in our prisons and they need to adhere to the rules and when they don’t, there needs to be consequences.”

He continued, “In part, that might be why you’re seeing more of that in the news because I take that position.  If there is an assault, you will typically see me charge that out as a felony. It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘well, you have to plead to the additional charge and we’ll allow it to be a part of your existing sentence.’ “That’s not acceptable to me.”

Jackley says these assaults can oftentimes be traced back to drug use that landed an inmate in prison in the first place.

“We have serious drug problems in our state.” He added, “It causes people to make more dangerous and harmful decisions. That exists in penitentiaries and elsewhere.”

Jackley says when it comes to correctional officers being assaulted while on the job, he’ll always have their back.

“They have a tough job. I don’t feel they get paid enough.  And they certainly don’t deserve to be assaulted or treated with disrespect by inmates.  My small part of that is to make sure they are supported and when an inmate allegedly harms a guard, there are consequences to those actions.”

Recently, a correctional officer at the South Dakota State Penitentiary chose to risk his employment by participating in an interview with Dakota News Now.

For 16 months, Scott Schlagel, a retired Veteran, has been a Correctional Officer at the State Pen in Sioux Falls. He said recent attacks on prison employees come down to one thing.

“We just don’t have the officers. I don’t care what Wasko (Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko) says. I don’t care what Bittinger (SD State Penitentiary Warden Theresa Bittinger) says. We do not have the officers,” Schlagel said. “With ongoing mandatory overtime stretching a shift up to 16 hours, the staff is tired.”

He added, “With planned construction of a new facility in Lincoln County, that staff will be gone for longer periods, driving inmates to Sioux Falls for medical and other appointments. Some officers may find the new location to be a breaking point.”

Following is the complete text of the letter sent to Governor Noem.

“We would like to bring the public’s attention to some staff concerns that have arisen since Secretary Kellie Wasko assumed leadership of the prison system. While we understand that changes are inevitable, recent policies have given rise to serious issues impacting the safety, efficiency, and morale within our correctional facility.

The introduction of “out of cell time” has resulted in unintended consequences. Extended periods outside their cells have led to a notable increase in contraband and synthetic marijuana distribution. Most distressingly, a corrections corporal was severely injured during one such period.

Furthermore, the recent modifications to the write-up system have left correctional officers feeling constrained in their ability to maintain order. The new system, seemingly less punitive, has created a backlog of unresolved disciplinary actions. We are instructed not to take appropriate actions or send non-compliant inmates to restrictive housing to “diffuse the situation”. Consequently, inmates are increasingly resistant to officers’ directives, showing little respect for officers, and often face no consequences for their actions.

In situations where restrictive housing is deemed necessary, its effectiveness is compromised by the brief duration of confinement – often lasting only a day or two. This short duration does little to deter disruptive and violent behavior or contribute to maintaining order and peace within the institution.

Moreover, the hierarchical decision-making process introduced under Secretary Wasko’s leadership has resulted in delayed responses to emergencies. Even in instances of violent inmate behavior or immediate medical attention requirements, officers in charge are required to speak with higher authorities who then determine what will be done causing unnecessary delays and putting both staff and inmates at risk.

The changes to the write-up system, combined with the increased backlog, have rendered it ineffective as a tool for discipline. Sergeants and lieutenants are burdened with investigating every disciplinary action, often leading to write-ups going unaddressed, leaving inmates without consequences for their actions.

Instances of sexual harassment towards many female staff by offenders and the recent refusal of several maximum custody inmates to lock up for officers paint a troubling picture of an institution where discipline is declining, and officers’ authority is being undermined.

 In the face of these challenges, the prevailing sentiment among correctional staff is one of demoralization. Many feel that the current administration is not adequately supporting the officers in maintaining order within the facility. The perceived lack of backing from the administration has been further exacerbated by the implementation of increasingly relaxed policies that hinder officers in efficiently carrying out their duties.

Our shared objective is to cultivate an environment that places paramount importance on safety, discipline, and the well-being of both staff and inmates. Regrettably, Secretary Wasko’s leadership has not yielded any discernible improvements. A prevailing sentiment among most staff is that Secretary Wasko’s continued tenure as a leader has proven ineffective. Many believe that a change in leadership, one that is more supportive of the well-being and concerns of correctional officers, is imperative.

A Collective of South Dakota Department State Penitentiary Employees

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