New Secretary of Corrections addresses staffing shortage, equipment issues and rats in prison kitchen

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Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 7:22 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -It has been four weeks since the new Secretary of Corrections took over the position in South Dakota.

Kellie Wasko has many plans to turn around a system with serious issues. She made the move to South Dakota after 22 years in Colorado, working for both private and state-run prisons.

Wasko is commending those who have stayed on the job, despite the times they were so short-staffed, the number of Correctional Officer openings were over 100.

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

We talked to DOC staff and shared feedback with Wasko, starting with an appreciation of open communication. One of Wasko’s first steps was to provide Nearly 350 DOC staff e-mail access.

“I have received emails I’ve received phone calls, I have put my phone number out there to tell them you know, the state gave me this phone so it’s for you to reach me,” said Wasko.

We forward staff concerns about pay. Wasko believes based on her conversations with Gov. Kristi Noem, there could be additional wage increases.

“I get the impression that she thought it wasn’t a one-time thing, it was just a bite at the bigger elephant. Employees don’t just want more money to get rich, they want more money so they can save for vacation and pay their bills,” said Wasko.

I-Team reporter Beth Warden asked Wasko about concerns from both inmates and families about Summit Foods’ two contracts. Specifically, there’s a concern the provider is offering lower quality food in general meals to prompt more inmates to spend money at the commisary.

“There’s a food service, Summit Foods. They have the meals and the commissary,” said Warden. “I talked to a mom who spends $30 plus service fees for one of the kosher packs to get more protein to her son. And it seems like there’s a conflict of interest there.”

“I understand the perception of you know, short one and gain on the other. But I don’t really have anything to base an opinion on yet. But I will be looking into the Summit contract,” said Wasko.

Wasko is confident that with improvements of better equipment such as tasers, additional training, and re-establishing programs for inmates, new applicants will come forward to apply with the DOC, taking the pressure off those working there now.

“The staff, they’re so dedicated and so committed to safety and well being, those are the ones who we want to reward,” said Wasko.

During the interview, we also brought forward staff concerns about rats in the kitchen at the Sioux Falls Penitentiary kitchen. Wasko followed through on her commitment to addressing it within hours and sent a follow-up message.

“I directed staff to review the report of rodent issues at the State Penitentiary,” she said. “We have worked with a pest control provider, and physical plant staff have been trapping in suspected areas of the facility. We have requested a campus-wide assessment and action plan be completed by an outside vendor to address the issue.”

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