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Earlier this month, the Department of Corrections blasted out an email to media outlets warning the public about a "high risk" inmate set to be released.

Cory Yellow Boy, a 28-year-old expected to live in the Rapid City area, served three years in prison after being convicted of second-degree escape — when a prisoner fails to return to custody after a temporary release or work assignment. 

So what makes the DOC think Yellow Boy, a man who's served his time after committing a low-level felony, is so dangerous that it's worth alerting the public?

The answer is that labeling an inmate high risk and deciding to notify the public isn't just about the severity of an inmate's most recent crime.

"Each individual case is reviewed," said DOC spokesman Michael Winder, calling it a "complex process with various assessments."

The DOC considers an inmate's most recent offense, behavior in prison, whether they will be released on parole or without supervision, and multiple risk assessments, Winder said. Those assessments analyze how likely an inmate is to engage in general, violent and sexual crimes. The decision to warn the public is ultimately decided by DOC's secretary or deputy secretary, according to a DOC policy document. 

In Yellow Boy's case, Winder said, the DOC considered his past conviction for fourth-degree rape against a 14-year-old girl and his multiple convictions for failing to update his information on the sex offender registry. The department was also concerned because a risk assessment found he has a high chance of committing another sexual offense, and because he will be released without supervision. 

The DOC began notifying the public about certain high-risk inmates in 2011 after a review of the department's policies, Winder said. That review was spurred by a prisoner who killed a woman two days after fleeing from his community transition program, according to the Argus Leader

Since 2011, the department has warned the public about 10 high-risk inmates and one high-profile inmate. Labeling an inmate high-profile is "more subjective," Winder said, and is based on the notoriety of the crime or trial, not their risk for re-offending. 

According to its data, the DOC has released 27,024 inmates from July 2011 through November 2018. The 10 inmates the DOC chose to publicly label high risk or high profile during that time period amounts to just .037 percent off all inmates who were released. 

Of the 11 high-risk and high-profile inmates, all are men, according to a review of their press releases.

Yellow Boy was one of three men most recently in prison for a non-violent crime. The two others were convicted of grand theft and third-degree burglary. 

The others were in prison for violent crimes: two rapes, three sexual contacts with a minor, one aggravated assault and one simple assault against a law enforcement officer.

Glen Walker, the sole high-profile inmate, was convicted of kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, and for helping with a kidnapping and first-degree murder, his press release says. Walker was the accomplice of Robert Leroy Anderson, who raped, tortured and killed two women in the mid-1990s. Anderson was sentenced to death but ended up killing himself in prison. 

When the 11 men were released, five planned to live in Sioux Falls, two planned to live in Rapid City and the others planned to live in Lead, Belle Fourche, Yankton and somewhere outside of the state. 

The DOC can't be certain about how many of the men re-offended since some eventually moved away from South Dakota, Winder said. But two of them were sent back to prison in South Dakota, one for failing to register as a sex offender and another for violating supervision conditions.

Winder said the DOC does its "absolute best" to rehabilitate people in prison and make sure they will be successful upon release. There are "very few instances" when the department is concerned the former inmate will be dangerous to the public. 

"In those cases where there is still significant concern for public safety, it is our duty as the Department of Corrections to do whatever we can do to keep the community safe," Winder said in response to how the DOC responds to critics who say it's unfair to publicly brand someone high risk when they've served their sentence. "The public notifications are rare but are made when warranted for public safety. It's a balance, but ultimately, our mission is to protect the citizens of South Dakota."

While it's rare for an ex-inmate to be labeled high risk to the public, all inmates are assigned a "system risk classification" upon entering prison, according to a DOC policy document. The classification is determined by analyzing inmates' criminal history, discipline history in prison, whether they've been placed in restrictive housing and various risk assessment tests. It's updated any time something occurs that would increase or lower an inmate's classification. 

Inmates are assigned a risk level between zero and three based on how many points they receive on their evaluation, the document says. Yellow Boy was found to have a level two system risk, Winder said. 

Killing a prisoner or staff member leads to a lifetime level three rating, the document shows. Those in restrictive housing have level three ratings as do those who in the last two years seriously injured or sexually abused someone, or encouraged or participated in a riot, demonstration, work stoppage or hunger strike. Inmates can also reach a level through a combination of different factors. 

 

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

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Criminal justice reporter