Mixed reviews from Correctional Officers after Executive team visits Penitentiary town hall meeting

Penitentiary town hall meeting has mixed reviews with prison staff
Published: Jan. 17, 2023 at 10:51 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -Troubles continue at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, where an executive team joined DOC employees for a town hall meeting on Tuesday.

An email on January 9th from Deputy Secretary Doug Clarke invited all DOC members to the meeting.

Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko believes there are unique staffing issues compared to the other prisons across the state. She highlighted concerns to the senate judiciary committee last week.

“Sioux Falls does have a higher turnover rate,” said Wasko. “So we’ve been able to use overtime and mandatory staffing.”

The mandatory double shifts are one of the frustrations causing some correctional officers to quit. In the last two years, shifts went from 8 to 12, then frequent mandatory 16 hours with little notice. Correctional officers’ mental alertness suffers during the extra long shifts.

Eric Ollila, Executive Director of the State Employees Association, hears from frustrated Correctional Officers.

“Things have really gotten strained in the system,” said Ollila. “Never a single time has a corrections officer contacted me wanting more pay to buy a new car or buy a motorcycle or make an investment. They are contacting me because they feel their safety is at risk and the safety of their co-workers or the safety of the inmates.”

Safety was brought into question with a January 11th attack on two officers. One had broken ribs. The other, a black eye and a hand injury.

“Both were are taken to the hospital. And again, it’s because of these violent type offenders,” said Wasko. “The staff did nothing wrong. The facility did nothing wrong.”

But Officer Andress, a Correctional Officer who quit on Saturday, says the facility is doing something wrong, exposing others to potential violence with officer staffing decreased by 50 percent in some areas. In an email to all DOC staff and executives, the departing officer sounded the alarm, saying on the final day of employment. “I have been in corrections for 14 years and I am genuinely scared for my fellow officers,” said Officer Andress.

Another officer contacted our I-team, saying: “We need help, and that help is never going to come unless we get it from an outside source because what our so-called “Leaders” are doing is going to get one of us severally injured or worse, killed!!”

Secretary of corrections Kellie Wasco told legislators last week that there are 90 openings here at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. That is a slight improvement over 100 openings for many months. The real question, though is how many positions have been eliminated to get to that number of 90.

We talked to several correctional officers as they filtered out of the morning meeting. One person said it was “Same sh**, different day.”

We asked another officer if he was hopeful. His response: “We’ll see.”

Below is the entire email sent to all staff and executive personnel at the DOC from Officer Andress:

Good morning,

I hope everyone had an amazing holiday season, well as best you could have since we all live here. If you do not know by now, I have resigned my position from the South Dakota State Penitentiary effective today. This is a decision that I did not want to make, and I do not want to leave. I have no other choice and have some things that I would like to say to explain why I came to this difficult but easy decision. It’s something I need to say to maybe help those of you that are left, I mean probably a waste of my breath, but I need to try, as I am scared for each and every one of you. Buckle up, I have always been long-winded on things I am passionate/care about.

Sullivan, when you arrived, I had a new fresh mindset that maybe just maybe we would get things back on track. You ask anyone, when the email came out about the 1 mandatory shift a month, I simply said to people that were moaning and grumbling about it, we must do our part. I said that it is just 1 day, let’s make SDSP great again . I simply followed suit because I do enjoy that double pay and usually picked up more than just the one day. I was trying to do my part and show people that it is not difficult. We put in the work now and be able to smooth sail sometime in the future. The same situation happened when it moved to 2 mandatory shifts in a month and with the “mandating” people to stay. I still stood by my word and did my part. During reset training you stated that we should not have hope because it truly is just a feeling of expectation or a desire for a certain thing to happen, but we should have faith. Faith is putting trust or confidence in someone or something. That something meaning we all must work together to make things better. I appreciated that, it was moving, and it felt that someone truly cared. I carried that with me.

According to what we were told in reset training, there was a “list” that would start with lowest seniority going to highest seniority and rotating through that list for forced mandatory shifts. So, meaning that we would not be “mandated” again until we went through the entire list. November 15th, 2022, came, and Sgt Schmidt called me and told me that I was being mandated to stay. I accepted that request from the Sgt and stayed for the full 16-hour shift, showing my dedication to the cause. Then on November 17th (2 days later) Lt Hofer called me and stated to me, “Moison called in for East Control, and I’m going to have to mandate you.” I simply stated that I did my “mandated” shift 2 days ago on Tuesday and was told “that’s not how it works” I disagree and stated that he had not went through the entire list of overnights. I still got the reply of “that’s not how it works.” I know for a fact that Scott had not been “mandated” in those 2 days because no one wanted to “mandate” him because he was threatening to quit if they did. (He has since done this) Another officer, I shall not name out of respect for that officer (but feel free to ask), had also not been “mandated” to stay either, so why was it my turn again? Oh, I know, it is because I can work East Control. I refused to stay and went home at 6am that morning. I was also told that I could be subject to disciplinary action. That day I sent out a massive email to ALL the upper staff members asking questions like where is the policy that states you can force us to stay or where is this “list” that OICs use. I sent the email to 7 people and got 1 response it wasn’t an email response but a phone call. Rotert called me that night while I was working in West Control. Rotert and I talked about how night shift gets boned in this whole mess because there is only 19 of us. We also talked about how it was not fair that we were getting mandated every other day. Rotert, I appreciate that you reached out and responded, at least one of our upper staff cares. As I understand it, there was an email sent out to the OICs stating they could not “mandate” the same people over and over. I was also told by a OIC that there was not a “list”. I am not sure how this keeps going on if there is nothing in writing on how OICs are supposed to do this. December 14th, 2022 rolled around and Lt Piel called me and told me to go up to 5th floor when I was done with my shift. I found out that I did in fact get a reprimand from the situation with Lt Hofer. Even though I have absolute proof, that according to what we were told it was not my turn to be mandated, I still get a reprimand? And days off? WHAT? Sullivan in your words, “You got me confused?” I did my mandated shift so I’m not sure why or how I got a reprimand out of the deal. That is the day that my faith in this place died. The reprimand was never served to me because HR Mayfield never showed up to the meeting that he scheduled. When I rode down in the elevator with Cpt Pitchford, she had stated unofficially I would get days off. I went home that morning and started looking for another job as that is ridiculous. Some would say that it seems petty reprimands don’t mean anything, yes you are right, but I get a reprimand for standing up for myself saying that this isn’t right and goes against what we were told by the warden. That quitting doesn’t solve anything, again yes you are right but I’m not going to be “mandated” every other day and having white shirts not follow by what we were told in reset training. My family is more important and I’m not going to bust my butt for administration who don’t care about us. After I put my time in, I sent an email to Cpt Pitchford and to HR Mayfield asking to get a copy of said reprimand, but I got no response from either of them. Crickets….and still waiting for that copy. You are punishing people that show up to work. Plain and simple. It does not make sense to me and probably never will. There is no policy that states how anyone is supposed to do this so OIC’s are just doing whatever they want. We got rid of the 12 hour shifts just to work 16-hour shifts. Staff are most definitely tired and exhausted especially the overnight staff as they get mandated every other day.

What happened to the concept of staff safety? We are putting 1 officer in West Hall for 232 inmates. How is that safe? I understand that the “custody level” is lower but you can’t expect 1 officer to do rounds efficiently, lock up inmates, and make sure the inmates and themselves are safe. Not to mention 3 sometimes 2 officers in East/Federal Hall with 540 inmates. It was just what a couple of years ago when we reached 540 inmates in East/Federal Hall we needed 6 officers over there….how does that make sense? I know there has always been a risk when we all walk in those doors, but I fear now it is higher than it’s ever been. I have been in corrections for 14 years and I am genuinely scared for my fellow officers. On January 11th, 2023, SCO Boysen and SCO Perry were assaulted….and what did the facility do…nothing…normal operations. What message is that sending to the inmates? Oh but when we have a bunch of fights between inmates we slow down chow and take 4 hours to do one chow, but staff get significantly hurt nope we are not going to do anything. The letters I read from inmates, they are just as confused and express concern that there is only 1 officer in West Hall. It is sad when the inmates are noticing that it is not a good idea, but our own administration doesn’t. I fear that, yes, I am leaving but I will get that phone call that states one of my dear brothers or sisters has fallen. I do not want that for anyone here. I hope you all can stay safe, that the right people wake up and get you the help you all desperately need, or you all leave this place.

Let’s talk about my favorite subject East Control . I have worked that pod for the majority of my 10 and half years I have been here. I love that pod and the challenge it brings. I do get stressed but I still love working in there. I conquered that beast and was damn good at it. When we started the 8 hour schedule the 7:15am East Control spot was not a “mandatory” spot. I’m sorry have any of you upper staff work that control pod by yourself and been successful at all the tasks? Do you know how much stuff you have going on in one day in there? Doing all the transfers, writing name tags, updating count, updating the locator, commissary, library ring outs, school ring outs, CD ring outs, health services 40 million people they need in a day, CD people looking for several inmates, mental health looking for several inmates, rec ring outs, rec ring ins, chow ring outs, chow ring ins, chapel, job transfers, work release, random orderly hours, paging inmate down to the 2 coordinators offices, paging inmates down to the 2 case managers officers, paging inmates to the unit mangers office, double checking every single list you get because most people don’t look up their correct cells, and I’m sure there are more that I’m missing. You all think one person can do all that day in and day out? Do you know how much more stress that adds to people working in there? No because you have never done it! People who have never done any of it are making rules about it. Yes, it can be done, I have done it several times when we were on the 12 hour shift, even Adkins. It is not something that is sustainable. That pod is an absolute mess because no one cares whether things get updated they are only trying to get through the long stressful day.

Who’s idea was it for the “functional” work groups? Why were we not informed of this change? Did this get created before or after we bid on our spots? So seniority doesn’t mean anything anymore? I do not understand this one bit and quite frankly I’m super mad about it along with a lot of other officers. The way our old system worked is everyone who wanted the spot put in and whomever was chosen usually had the most time or had the most experience within that particular spot. What was wrong with that? Now someone with 2 months could get a spot that someone with 25 years wanted just because of where they are posted in these “functional” work groups, they are just SOL. I have never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life. Seniority should mean something, since we know we don’t get much for being here long term. I have never seen or heard anything so backwards in my life. It’s just a slap in the face to those of us who choose to make this a life long career.

Since I have put my time in, I have only heard from 1 upper administration just 1. Rotert again I appreciate you reaching out. It seems that Rotert is the only one who gives a damn about us. That is extremely sad. That just shows I am making the right choice in leaving. You all say that you care about us but, you don’t. We are just numbers to you. I will be the bad guy and say what every officer is thinking, that ever since Wasko has arrived this place has fallen faster and harder than it ever has. Sullivan she has stolen your voice and stopped your communication with us. I am not sure how changes to the uniforms (which we have yet to see) helps with mental wellbeing of the staff but you tell yourself whatever you need to sleep at night. We are not Colorado we are South Dakota. I do appreciate all those co-workers that reached out and the departing gifts. That makes me incredibly sad that I have to leave you all. I never knew the impact I had on my co-workers or how much you guys have really become like family to me until now. I again thank each and every one of you for your hard work and amazing 10 and half years.

I will leave you with this quote that I found, as I could go on and on about the issues, but I would be beating a dead horse at this point…. but it fully encapsulates what is going on at SDSP and I don’t think anything could describe it more perfectly. This truly sums up what I have said and will continue to say about my time at SDSP. You punish the people that show up to work and all of us deserve better.

“Being good at your job often attracts more work.

It’s called ‘performance punishment’, and it is a dangerous game for leaders.

Overworking your high performers to avoid growing your under-performers is a fast track to disaster.

It breeds resentment. Good people will leave, and poor performers will not learn.

Be very careful of the behaviors and standards we reward.”

I wish you all the best and I truly appreciate each one of you. Just know you deserve better and hopefully someone will realize it before it’s too late.

Stay safe,