Late officer’s wife concerned for officers’ safety at SD State Penitentiary

Published: Aug. 6, 2021 at 6:20 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -It just happened this spring, former Correctional Officer James Elledge watched another officer being told he would serve a one-man post instead of a two-man post.

“What went through my mind initially when I heard them even ask that person was like, did they forget what happened?” said Elledge.

Elledge was among the correctional officers trying to help the late Ronald ‘RJ’ Johnson after a brutal attack in April 2011.

“I came around the corner and there he was, and Officer Baker and Sharpton were doing CPR,” said Elledge.

Johnson’s wife, Lynette, got the call from former Warden Doug Weber.

“This is serious, they’re doing CPR, I need to know what hospital,” said Johnson.

She arrived at a hospital room surrounded by officers, most of his head covered, and blankets up to his neck. She had no idea how severely he was beaten.

“He had a little owie I said oh my gosh you got an owie, and so I kissed it. It was black and blue and I kissed it and he opened his eye,” said Johnson.

That was the last time she saw her husband alive. That’s when she learned of an escape attempt, inmates stealing and wearing his uniform, and how he died.

“Blunt trauma to the head,” said Johnson.

“We couldn’t save him. There wasn’t anything that we could have done. Then we tried everything,” said Elledge. “The positions that we had at those times should have been, double, double staff positions and they weren’t. When you start to recognize that unfortunately after an event like the tragedy of RJ.”

After Johnson’s death, many one-man posts were changed to two.

“It was big, when Ron was murdered,” said Johnson. “But then, time went, and then the safety precautions up there just start to fade away.”

I-Team Reporter Beth Warden asked Governor Kristi Noem about the change of two-man posts to one during a media conference on July 23rd.

“These correctional officers here though are fully staffed at all times, according to what is required and what normal staffing levels are at other facilities,” said Governor Noem.

Checking with other facilities, we turned to the U.S. Department of Justice. Their report reflects a goal of a 15 to 1 inmate to officer ratio. Most federal prisons met the standard in 2020.

We followed up and asked the South Dakota Department of Corrections what their staffing regulations are and received a one-sentence response. “We do not disclose security-related matters.”

Multiple sources have revealed one-man posts in the Bravo block and Delta block. If an officer needs to leave to accompany an inmate for a medical matter, both the Delta and Bravo blocks have been covered by just one officer. That is a ratio of conservatively 300 inmates to one, although it could be higher.

“You walk through that gate. The hair on the back of your neck still stands up, it don’t matter if it’s day one or if it’s year 35, when you walk through the gate, you might not make it home,” said Elledge.

It’s been ten years since Johnson died. It was also his birthday on the day of his death. He was planning to return home and enjoy blueberry cake. He even picked up extra canned blueberries to top the cake. Lynette just recently threw away the can after holding on to it for ten years. She finds comfort in ongoing relationships with those who worked with Ron and hopes for their safety, amidst staffing, nepotism, and sexual harassment concerns.

“Let’s hope someday that you’re not looking over the shoulder for the inmate, and what’s happening in the administration and your leadership that you can just focus someday, and the inmates in those surroundings,” said Johnson.

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