Oversight and safety concerns at State Penitentiary’s Pheasantland Industries

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 10:25 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -It’s been three weeks since James Elledge finished his last day as a correctional officer at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

“That is 12 years of my life that I serve the state of South Dakota,” said Elledge.

One of the concerns he has for those who still work there is their safety. When the inmate workshop Pheasantland Industries had their most recent fire in June, he was there.

“And it’s a lacquer spray booth, and they were doing some maintenance work on one of the things and it caught fire. It was a complete total accident,” said Elledge.

According to a release from the State, three Penitentiary staff members were transported to a local hospital to be examined for possible smoke inhalation. Preliminary information indicated the fire may have started in an exhaust fan.

“A couple of other individuals who grabbed some fire extinguishers and put it out. There was no malicious intent there wasn’t it wasn’t started on purpose,” said Elledge.

In the process of fighting the fire, he made a discovery.

“Personal protective equipment that we had was not sufficient. Myself and an individual could not get that... they call it a hood, and we could not get that over our head,” said Elledge. “So it’s kind of a scary situation when you don’t have the proper equipment.”

On July 23rd, Governor Kristi Noem visited staff at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, followed by a media conference.

“Staff is being asked for a lot, and they deserve better equipment,” said Governor Noem.

We looked into the issue of the cause of the last two Pheasantland industries fires in June, and last October, which took our investigative team on a journey.

Sioux Falls Fire Rescue responded that they don’t investigate fires at State buildings and referred us to the State Fire Marshal’s office, which also said they don’t investigate fires at the State Penitentiary. We were referred to the Bureau of Administration and were told they too are not in charge of investigating fires. We were then referred back to the Department of Corrections.

In a follow-up email after our original story aired, we received this message from Michael Top, Battalion Chief of Enforcement and Investigation for Sioux Falls Fire Rescue. “Sioux Falls Fire Rescue does and has investigated fires at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. In just the past 12 months, Sioux Falls Fire Rescue has investigated two fires at the Penitentiary. One in October of 2020 and one in June of 2021. Both accidental fires were relatively small. The reports for those fires and all fires in Sioux Falls are sent to the State Fire Marshal’s Office as part of the National Fire Incident Reporting System,” said Top.

It appears the Department of Corrections investigates themselves. We asked if anyone at the DOC has specific training to investigate fires, such as training that a Fire Marshal would have. We received no response.

As Elledge begins his next chapter of life, leaving his job at the Penitentiary behind, he hopes the ongoing investigation, lead by Governor Kristi Noem, will provide more safety to those who work at the Penitentiary.

“We’ll continue to make sure that when we use that report and when it is finalized, that it’s not just short term fixes, but that the Department of Corrections will make long term reforms that will be impactful for those who choose to make this their career,” said Noem.

The South Dakota State Employees Association Executive Director Eric Ollilla issued the following statement:

“State government is sitting on $300-million-plus in various reserves, even creating a brand-new reserve to stash funds, yet it supposedly don’t have the funds to give significant ongoing increases in compensation to state government employees, and it apparently doesn’t even have working safety equipment? Something has broke in the state’s system, but it’s certainly not the hard-working career employees, who despite a rotating cast of appointed leadership and PR pitches, are still getting their jobs done, and probably the jobs of a couple others to boot.”

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