Staffing crisis cancels showers, activities at South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls

Staffing crisis at SD State Penitentiary cancels showers, activites
Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 11:43 AM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Gov. Kristi Noem made changes to the Department of Corrections last year, hoping to solve staffing shortages. The issue has only gotten worse at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

Last September, there was a 25% vacancy rate for Correctional Officers at the Penitentiary, according to a report from a consulting firm hired by the Department of Corrections, CGL. The vacancy rate now is 46%, according to correctional officers.

Update: Governor Noem’s office and the Department of Corrections dispute Dakota News Now’s calculation of the vacancy rate and say the situation is not as bad as we’ve reported. They report that the vacancy rate is 27%.

“These are real people not imagined problems,” said a member of the legislative corrections commission, Senator Troy Heintert. “You know, it was over a year ago that we started talking about staffing issues you know, at the Penitentiary.”

Staffing on April 22-24 was so low that inmates could not leave their cells for showers. Other activities were canceled, including a Pow Wow scheduled months ago. Invitations had been sent to community and family members, and their security applications were reviewed for attendance.

“We had donated 100 pounds of buffalo meat,” said Heinert. “So I don’t know if that, you know, now has went to waste.”

The Department of Corrections representative, Michael Winder, says the meat is in the freezer to be used at the next Pow Wow.

Heinert is looking forward to hearing solutions from Kellie Wasko, the new secretary of corrections, “We have to give the new secretary a little bit of time but with very, very clear expectations.”

Heinert wishes the legislature would have collectively taken more action during the last session and points to the Governor’s office, “You know, this governor has not included the corrections commission in her doubt going on for years of office.”

Heinert is not the only one questioning state leadership. A Correctional Officer who wishes to remain anonymous also wrote in.

“It’s horrible. We’re losing more staff than we can hire. They’re shutting down activities on the weekends just to get relief for the officers. The Warden has made the right call. Everybody’s burnt out from the mandatory overtime. It’s really not the Warden’s fault its the legislation’s fault for not bringing the competitive wages to Sioux Falls to meet the demand of officers that we need.

That California report came out and stated that for every officer we hired two quit. We are running at half capacity staff. I don’t know any business that could handle losing half their employees and still function properly. Throw in the kind of work we do or it’s already stressful and dangerous.

Right now we are receiving bonuses till June but those will be ending. Some staff are already planning on quitting when those end.

Our Governor said she was going to take care of this problem, said she backed law enforcement in South Dakota. All she did is put a band-aid on the problem, fix it temporarily with bonuses. When it came time to advocate for us long term she was nowhere to be heard or found.

When the report came out we were at 25% vacancy with 48 staff openings we are now at 88 openings since the report came out we have a total of 191 officers. We are now at 46% vacancy.

Update: Governor Noem’s office and the Department of Corrections say the anonymous correctional officer’s numbers are not entirely accurate. They say the 88 vacancies refer to all positions. At the time of the report, there were 74 uniformed staff positions open.

After you count in for officers taking a vacation, people calling in sick, a new staff being trained. It hardly leaves a functioning staff.”

Anonymous Correctional Officer

When an inmate is disappointed by cancelations, correctional officers have to manage the frustration, making their job even more difficult.

“When life was made difficult for inmates, their jobs are going to be harder,” said Executive Director of the South Dakota State Employees Association, Eric Ollila.

Seasoned staff believe they are second thought as focus shifts to hiring new staff.

“We’re losing veteran valued employees for some scheme to try to bring in some new folks,” said Eric Ollila.

Ollila pulled up a graphic on his computer of a flyer showing a $5,000 hiring bonus for the first five people to accept employment or take certain shifts at various prisons around the state. He believes the applicants won’t even know if they qualify for the hiring bonus or not.

Legislative summer study conversations may find solutions, like sharing state and local space.

Representative Al Novstrup of Aberdeen believes a solution could be combining county and state resources with shared office and cell space and “representatives of counties representatives of state saying what’s the best way to get the job done at the lowest price,” said Novstrup. In Aberdeen, a concrete-walled building is available that Novstrup believes could be a good location.

Heinert says if a combined space would be created, it should be more centrally located for both east and west river needs.

As legislators look at solutions that will take time to implement, the challenge of enough staff is evident now at the State Penitentiary, especially on weekends. There’s an odd team and an even team that takes opposite shifts each weekend. One of the teams is particularly struggling with enough coverage. Correctional officers say the only overlap during that shift change on the weekends are the officers on mandatory overtime.

We reached out to Governor Noem’s office for an interview or statement and did not receive a response.

The Department of Corrections media representative did reply saying:

Our current, annualized vacancy rate for all positions in the DOC is 31.5%. We’re continuing to work on staff pay, recruitment, and retention issues. A few examples include:

  • The Legislature approved a historic 6% pay raise for state employees.
  • Also included in the approved budget was $6 million in targeted pay increases for current correctional staff.
  • Positions included in these targeted increases include the following: Corrections Specialist, Correctional Officer, Corrections Corporal, Corrections Sergeant, Corrections Captain, Corrections Major, Corrections Lieutenant, Unit Manager, Unit Coordinator, Case Manager, Sr. Case Manager, Training Specialist, Cultural Affairs Coordinator, Parole Agent, Sr Parole Agent, Prison Shop Foreman, Springfield Vocational Industries staff, Senior Juvenile Corrections Agent, and Juvenile Corrections Agents.
  • The new starting rate of a new correctional officer will soon increase from $17.89 per hour to $20 per hour
  • We are offering a $5,000 hiring bonus to new correctional officers in Sioux Falls, Pierre, Springfield (night shift).
  • The temporary pay enhancements that have been in place since July 2021 have been extended to June 8, 2022:
  • Night Shift Differential (hourly employees):
    • $1.50 per hour will be paid for all hours worked during designated night shift hours (5:30 PM to 5:30 AM, 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM) every day of the week
    • Employees working these hours will also receive existing weekend and other approved differentials
  • Shift Coverage Rate (hourly employees):
    • Double-time (two times your base rate) will be paid on a shift for which staff voluntarily fill hours. This rate will apply to full and partial shifts. This rate is paid on voluntarily covered shifts regardless of the number of other hours worked in the period.
  • The time-and-one-half overtime rate applies on regular shifts when hours exceed 80 hours in the two-week period
  • A retention bonus is being paid for existing correctional staff based on the number of weeks an employee works. Full-time employees were compensated as follows: October 1st- $400, December 1st- $500, February 1st- $600, April 1st $1,000.
  • DOC pays a referral bonus to DOC employees who successfully refer friends or family to work as correctional officers
  • BHR sponsored a bill with the support of Gov. Noem to fix the holiday pay issue so that hourly individuals who work on a holiday receive the paid benefit for their total hours worked. Senate Bill 68 passed the Legislature and was signed into law by the Governor.
  • We are also working on staff recruitment in a number of ways:
  • DOC is part of the Governor’s national law enforcement recruitment campaign
  • We have worked with the Bureau of Human Resources to hold job fairs where prospective staff can immediately apply for correctional officer positions
  • We worked with a production company to produce advertisements for television, radio, and social media,” said DOC representative Michael Winder.

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