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Concerns raised over Correctional Officer safety, benefits, and pay at South Dakota State Penitentiary

Updated: May. 12, 2021 at 4:59 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The circulation of an anonymous letter is raising concerns over the safety, compensation, and benefits package for a group of employees.

The author of an anonymous email is claiming there are multiple issues regarding correctional officers and the department of corrections, particularly at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. The email was circulated to other correctional officers.

Some of these issues may not only be affecting correctional officers at other state facilities but all state employees.

The email inbox for Eric Ollila has been busy since that last legislative session. As the Executive Director for the South Dakota State employees organization, he’s hearing from a group of discouraged correctional officers.

“The primary one that I’m hearing is on the morale, morale front for these correctional officers,” said Ollila. “They just feel almost universally disrespected and not cared for.”

One of the concerns is the reduction in health benefits; something that used to draw people to apply for a state position according to District 15 State Senator Reynold Nesiba.

“So, Senate Bill 57 that passed this past year allows the state to charge premiums to state employees in the past, state employees themselves were not charged a premium, they were charged premiums if they had spouses or children on the plan,” said Sen. Nesiba.

The bill was touted to save the state money while providing wage increases.

“The legislators called to trim this session, it’s not a trim it was, I mean a beheading or a lobotomy practically,” said Ollila.

“That eight of that $12 million is brought is really from higher premiums being charged to state employees, which are then being used to raise the wages of some state employees. So it’s almost as if we’re trying to tax state employees to raise, to raise their wages,” said Sen. Nesiba.

“The governor is the one that sets their pay. The legislature is the one that sets their pay and benefits together,” said Ollila.

The changes in benefits affect every state employee except Judges and Board of Regents members. With so many places hiring, a good employee can be hard to find. A correction officer’s starting pay at the State Penitentiary is $17.47 per hour.

“So our Department of Corrections, not only do we have to compete with Nebraska and Iowa, North Dakota, but we have to compete with Minnehaha county jail. And right now, the wages that you can get for a beginning officer at the county jail are actually higher than we’re paying out at the Department of Corrections in the penitentiary, and those working at the penitentiary have to deal with more dangerous, more dangerous felons,” said Sen. Nesiba.

There are also claims of lack of proper safety equipment.

“Anything where you have to be on the spot, and you have to be in fear for your life, and you have to be at least aware of the threats against you; anything that takes that focus away from you is a problem,” said Ollila.

Ollila has heard from correctional officers across the state. Letters describe being suck between forfeiting their retirement to get a better wage outside of a state job, or staying in their position, bearing the weight of new medical expenses and prescriptions no longer covered by their health insurance plan.

“Jobs are incredibly difficult, incredibly dangerous, and they just deserve to be treated better,” said Ollila.

Nesiba agrees.

“And want somebody to listen to them and not have to send anonymous notes to you,” said Sen. Nesiba.

Dakota News Now reached out to the South Dakota Penitentiary. Although the Warden declined an interview, they did send a statement. Spokesperson Michael Winder says they are aware of the letter, are taking it seriously, and that each allegation will be fully investigated.

Dakota News Now also corresponded with the anonymous sender of the letter. The responder declined an interview and listed specific names of Penitentiary employees that he or she hopes will be reviewed.

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