South Dakota Penitentiary inmate letters reveal despair, call for change

South Dakota Penitentiary inmate letters reveal despair, call for change
Published: Aug. 5, 2022 at 1:00 AM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -

Our Dakota News Now I-team continues to hear from Correctional officers, inmates, and their families regarding the lack of staffing at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

No one is expecting a posh experience while behind bars. However, the claim is basic human dignity is unmet, mainly due to the staffing crisis.

Lynn and her family have been a friend with Paul, an inmate in the South Dakota state penitentiary in Sioux Falls, for years. The family was connected to Paul through a church program. When Lynn’s children were young, Paul created radios in many shapes, such as planes and cars. He enjoyed creating things for others; however, those opportunities were eliminated through the years. Lynn, her husband, and adult children are now concerned for his mental health and safety. The primary cause can be attributed to a staffing shortage.

“It’s kind of human despair of wanting to be relevant; even if you did something bad, he acknowledges what he did,” said Lynn.

He’s crafted and provided ideas for prison reform from the perspective of a long-time inmate. Lynn believes he has good ideas that could benefit the Penitentiary, but they fall on deaf ears.

“And he feels ignored all the time when he tries to talk to the warden or use the proper channels in prison,” said Lynn.

Paul copes with the stress and mental health challenges of being incarcerated by running. Unfortunately, the lack of staff has taken away most of the outdoor rec time. He writes to Lynn:

“I’m just so tired of life being a constant battle. In which I’m unable to make even the slightest bit of progress. I’m not ready to accept defeat and give up on life, but right now, I just feel so very defeated. And like I’ve been beaten to the ground,” Paul writes.

Struggles to receive medical attention compound the issue. His ongoing stomach pain is dismissed according to letters sent to Lynn. He worries there may be a serious health problem.

“He feels treated like livestock,” said Lynn.

Inmates continue to write in frustration over the lack of hiring and maintaining correctional officer staffing levels.

“Improved staff safety and morale are things our system truly needs,” says an inmate in a letter to Dakota News Now.

In another letter, the offender says Governor Noem and the legislature should not be off the hook and continues:

“They are the ones who need to increase wages for correctional officers,” he said.

Frustration mounts with cutbacks on programs. Both a corrections officer and inmate are reporting inmates wearing dirty clothes for five days in a row due to the delay in receiving laundry returned after washing. Some inmates are washing their clothes in a sink rather than waiting. The Department of Corrections says there is no delay in the turnaround time for laundry, which is the same day.

From our stack of inmate letters is a comment about tension building due to a lack of programs tied to inadequate staffing.

“Inmates just sit in their cells 21 1/2 hours a day. It breeds contempt,” said the man.

DOC spokesperson Michael Winder responded to those concerns saying:

“We will continue to strive for reaching staffing levels appropriate for reinstating all activities that have been modified or cancelled. This is an unprecedented labor market.”

A correctional officer told our I-team, “the prison has always had issues, but now it’s like a third-world country.”

Lynn says the lack of human decency in how inmates are treated creates hopelessness and despair as the tension rises throughout the Penitentiary.

“By taking away the little they have to give life any meaning at all, it’s only a matter of time before something breaks,” says Lynn reading Paul’s letter out loud.

The correctional officer we spoke with did not want to be identified due to possible retaliation.

The benefits are keeping him there for now. But, he says, “I’m going to hang on as long as I can. I’m just trying to get through a week at a time.”

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