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Noem wants widespread changes at prisons after complaints

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SIOUX FALLS | South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said Friday that she is looking to make widespread changes in the state's prison system after meeting with tired and discouraged employees working short-handed at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

The Republican governor fired the prison's warden and deputy warden last week following an investigation into an anonymous complaint from a prison employee. It alleged low employee morale amid lagging pay raises and cuts to employee benefits. It also accused the prison leadership of allowing dangerous working conditions, with some employees receiving tactical equipment that was not "up to standards" as well as facing regular sexual harassment from supervisors.

"The prisons are safe for inmates and staff today but I would say the staff was tired and the staff is being asked for a lot and they deserve better equipment than what they have," Noem told reporters after the meeting.

The complaint alleges that prison officials ignored attempts to report the sexual harassment and that some supervisors even changed work schedules so that they could work in the same areas as the victims. Noem said that she could not confirm whether the investigation by the Bureau of Human Resources corroborated the sexual harassment complaint. But she said that a summary of the investigation left no doubt in her mind that changes needed to be made "immediately."

The governor's office has released little information on the human resources investigation. She said Friday that state law kept her from releasing the report.

The former deputy warden, Jennifer Dreiske, has said in a statement that she "never wavered" in her duties of keeping staff safe and that she was fired without an explanation. The other fired or suspended officials have not spoken publicly about the allegations.

Noem said it was possible others would be fired. She has suspended her Cabinet Secretary who oversees the prison system and the director of a prison work program.

"Everybody's being evaluated," she said. "Every single person, and especially those in leadership."

The organization that advocates for government employees, the South Dakota State Employees Organization, has said complaints among prison employees statewide have become widespread in recent months and were prompted in part by a policy Noem initiated — requiring government workers to pay part of the premiums for their health insurance. She defended that policy, saying it would free up money for raises and make the health care plans financially viable.

South Dakota's incarceration rate is the 11th highest in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The state's prisons last year also suffered through one of the nation's worst rates for infections. Two out of every three inmates were infected with COVID-19, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

The state employees' organization has said the pandemic just compounded the crunch on corrections officers and led to staffing shortages.

The governor also said she is looking to recruit more officers by changing salaries, vacation policy and training gear. But she said that boosting pay for state employees would require finding ongoing revenue sources. She added she would like to see the Legislature address an overhaul of the state's prison systems by replacing aging facilities and providing for prison programs that focus on rehabilitation.

"We are looking at evaluating every single policy," Noem said.

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