So far this year, 15 state prison inmates have fled minimum-security facilities or job sites in South Dakota, and in two instances in Rapid City, the escapees were quickly involved in violence — with one being murdered and the other charged with a murder.
If the pace continues, 2017 would see the most escapes from minimum-security sites in the past six years, and possibly longer.
At any given time, hundreds of minimum-security state prison inmates are working in communities across the state, including many in Rapid City. They are generally entrusted to return to prison facilities after work on their own.
Those who do not return are considered escapees, and public bulletins are issued by the state.
Some escapees return on their own, but most are quickly caught by law enforcement. Three escapees remain on the loose, and twice this year, the escapes in Rapid City took a violent turn.
On Jan. 10, Moses Dubray, 32, walked away from the minimum-security facility in Rapid City.
Dubray was found dead Jan. 11 along S.D. Highway 89 in Fall River County. Dubray had walked away from the Rapid City Community Work Center, his assigned unit while he served a five-year burglary sentence.
After escaping, he had reportedly been shot in the head. His killing remains unsolved.
Then, on June 2, Andrew Eastman, 28, left his community service work site at the Rapid City landfill, stole a city pickup and, authorities now say, went to the home of former Rapid City school teacher Larry Mintzlaff and brutally beat him to death.
At the time of his escape he was serving sentences in South Dakota for drug offenses out of Hughes County and grand theft out of Pennington County. Eastman fled to New Mexico, where he was captured by federal authorities, and has since been returned to South Dakota to face murder charges.
Since then, four more state prison inmates have been declared “walkaways” — inmates who leave their minimum-security facility or the places they work or do community service during the day.The offense, second-degree escape, is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Last year, there were nine walkaways throughout the state. In 2015, there were 17, the highest number since 2012, according to data from the South Dakota Department of Corrections.
Ten of this year’s 15 walkaways are from Rapid City, including Dubray and Eastman. Around the July Fourth holiday, two inmates walked away in separate escapes on consecutive days.
State Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk described the two violent cases as “unusual circumstances” but acknowledged that the walkaway numbers in 2017 are higher than usual.
The department, Kaemingk said in a phone interview, is still trying to figure out the reason behind the spike by looking at “common denominators” in the escapes.
Among the reasons inmates walk away, he said, is when they’re concerned about problems in their family or when there are disagreements at their job site. He noted that offenders can act impulsively, a factor that landed some of them in prison in the first place.
Kaemingk’s office is also reviewing the policies that govern how inmates are classified into custody levels — maximum, high medium, low medium or minimum — and how they are assessed.
The corrections department has enhanced security and stepped up checks in the wake of the recent escapes, Kaemingk said, but declined to discuss the changes, citing security reasons.
“If we believe we’re soft in an area, we certainly step that up,” he said. But Kaemingk emphasized that the ultimate goal of prison is to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them to be released for reintegration into the community.
Some inmates housed in South Dakota’s four minimum-security facilities, including the Rapid City Community Work Center, are employed or perform community service — sometimes both — outside the facility.
Those on “work release” take on jobs with private employers, such as a construction company or restaurant, said department spokesman Michael Winder.
Inmates are paid the prevailing market wage and can keep their jobs through the time they’re released on parole.
Having a job eases an inmate’s return to the community, Kaemingk said, adding that it is one less major change the person has to confront and helps lessen repeat offenses within the first two months of release from incarceration.
Inmates go to work on their own and are trusted to return to their minimum-security facility at the end of the day. They’re allowed various ways of getting around, including walking, cycling and riding public transportation, according to corrections department guidelines.
“They have better success and less recidivism when an offender has the ability to transition to a lower classification, more freedom as they move on, because the next placement they’re gonna have is in the community,” Kaemingk said. “Our goal always is that we want our offenders to go out and be good neighbors.”
The department declined to provide a list of Rapid City employers participating in the work-release program, citing security reasons.
Inmates involved in community service, meanwhile, are sources of low-cost labor for federal, state and local government agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations and public educational institutions, said Winder.
Participating sites include the Rapid City landfill, where inmates help out with tasks like sorting recyclables, and the Rapid City Club for Boys, where they clean and do maintenance work once the club members are gone. They may also help fight wildfires, thin forests and clean up after storms.
The groups they serve are in charge of picking up and dropping off inmates at the minimum-security facility. Sites do not provide extra security, but representatives are trained in how to work with inmates.
The Rapid City landfill, for instance, gets two to five inmates who primarily assist at the recycling area from Monday to Friday. Landfill supervisors conduct inmate counts at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day, said Karl Merbach, superintendent of the city’s Solid Waste Division.
The Community Work Center also makes random phone and site inspections.
When issues with inmates arise, Merbach said, landfill managers have been instructed to call the inmate facility.
“We’re not prison guards. They’re just out here to work,” he said. “Anytime there’s something out of the ordinary, all we have to do is make a phone call.”
Inmates on the community-service program are paid 25 cents an hour, part of the $1.25 that the department of corrections receives for their service.
Among the landfill’s current employees, Merbach said, are two former inmates, including someone who has been working at the site for about three years.
Despite the incident with Eastman, Rapid City officials said the city has no plans to end its 15-year participation in the program. But the city has since tightened security procedures involving access to its vehicles at the landfill, said spokesman Darrell Shoemaker.
Overall, Shoemaker said, Rapid City considers the program a success since it has allowed the local government to save on labor costs while providing inmates with work experience.
There are about 980 inmates across the state who are in minimum custody and have the opportunity to walk away each day, Kaemingk said. The 15 walkaways this year represent 1.5 percent of that population and 0.39 percent of the state prison system’s current average daily population.
Three escapees are still at large. The oldest case goes back to January 2013, and the most recent case to July 4. All walked away from Rapid City sites.
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, whose office supervises county defendants or offenders on electronic monitoring, said he is not alarmed that walkaways are occurring but added that rising numbers should be a concern.
“It would cause me to pause and reflect on the program, and look and see if we’re doing something different or it’s just a unique population we have, and it’s an anomaly,” Thom said. “I think the department of corrections does a good job of managing that population.”
Before inmates are assigned a custody level, they undergo an assessment that primarily looks at the risks they pose, including escape, violence and repeat criminal behavior, according to department of corrections policy.
A unit classification board determines an inmate’s custody level and recommends housing and programming needs, like drug treatment and GED courses. The board also schedules the inmate’s next classification review, which occurs at least once a year, the policy reads.
Inmates with ties to the Black Hills area, such as relatives and past employers, are likely to be considered for the Rapid City Community Work Center when they reach minimum status, said Winder.
Kaemingk reassures the community that public safety is the department of corrections’ primary concern. The department’s biggest role in this regard, he said, is releasing back into society offenders who have been rehabilitated and will be less of a danger than when they entered prison.
“Are there gonna be ones that don’t turn out and don’t pan out? Yes, there will be, but they’re gonna be very minimal,” he said.