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Inmate recovers, prison staff to wear masks, punishment for parole violations relaxed
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Inmate recovers, prison staff to wear masks, punishment for parole violations relaxed

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Department of Corrections staff will begin wearing these cloth masks made by inmates. 

Gov. Kristi Noem and the Department of Corrections have made several recent changes and announcements about coronavirus safety in state prisons. 

Noem has ordered the DOC to relax the usual punishment for parolees who test positive for drugs during the COVID-19 outbreak. And the DOC announced that all staff will begin wearing cloth face masks at work.

The DOC also shared that the inmate from the minimum-security unit at the women’s prison in Pierre who tested positive for COVID-19 has recovered. All other inmates from her unit that were quarantined have now been released.

The DOC previously reported that 155 inmates were being observed after having positive contact with the woman who tested positive. It’s unclear if they were all placed in quarantine. The DOC has not said if any staffers were under observation or quarantine. 

The change in punishment for drug parole violations is the first step by Noem and the DOC that will limit the number of inmates in state prisons during the COVID-19 outbreak. They previously said they’re not planning on conducting any special early releases.

Some local criminal justice systems in South Dakota — including those in Pennington and Minnehaha counties — have taken multiple steps to reduce the amount of new people being booked into jails while lowering bonds or quickly processing those who are already locked up.

Other leaders and community justice systems across the country have also ordered changes to lower the number of people in jails and prison to prevent coronavirus spreading among inmates and staff.

The Centers for Disease Control says the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid large crowds and close contact with others and keep yourself and your surroundings clean. The CDC also says that people who live and work in correctional facilities are at higher risk of contracting the virus since they are in crowded, close quarters, and have new people coming and leaving each day. Inmates also have access to fewer sanitation products than those in the outside world.

South Dakota prisons and jails have not been as hard hit as others across the country. So far, state and local officials have reported that one prison inmate had the virus and that a contractor for the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office had tested positive

In contrast to South Dakota, 273 inmates at the Rikers Island Prison and 374 staff members across the New York City jail population have COVID-19 as of April 5, according to an April 6 TIME story. One inmate and four corrections officers have died. And 234 inmates and 78 staffers at the Cook County Jail in Chicago have the virus, according to an April 7 story in the Chicago Tribune. One of those inmates has died.

Parole, mask changes 

South Dakota law says that people on parole who test positive for a controlled substance must be punished with “some period of incarceration.”

“Strict compliance” with this law will “prevent, hinder or delay necessary actions to cope with this (coronavirus) emergency in all counties of our state,” Noem wrote in her April 7 executive order.

During the coronavirus outbreak, Noem wrote, the DOC should instead create a policy “that reflects the nature of responding and mitigating to the emergency in the best interests (of) the health and safety of the state’s institutions and inmates.”

Noem wrote that this policy could, for example, allow for alternative punishments to incarceration or deferring incarceration until the pandemic is over.

Meanwhile, the DOC announced April 8 that all staffers will begin wearing cloth face masks created by inmates at Pheasantland Industries. Inmates began making the masks and other protective gear earlier this month and are paid 25-50 cents an hour depending on experience.

The DOC says it’s taking this step “out of an abundance of caution” and noted that while the CDC has told people to wear masks in public, it hasn’t ordered all staff in correctional facilities to do so.

The DOC did not say if inmates will have access to the masks in certain circumstances. But it said “the greatest risk to introducing the virus into our facilities is from people coming in from the outside, which is why staff will be wearing them.”

Cloth masks are meant to prevent people with asymptomatic COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others, according to the CDC. The agency says masks should be worn in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas with significant community-based transmission.

The CDC doesn’t say that inmates or corrections staff should wear face masks at all times, but it does say they should wear them and other protective gear in certain situations.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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