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South Dakota has highest COVID-19 prisoner infection rate in U.S.
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South Dakota has highest COVID-19 prisoner infection rate in U.S.


South Dakota has the highest COVID-19 prisoner infection rate in the U.S. but will be prioritizing staff over inmates for vaccinations.

Sixty-two percent of South Dakota prisoners have been infected with the virus, according to a Dec. 18 analysis by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project. That’s more than three times the 20% infection rate of state and federal prisoners across the county, which is already more than four times as high as the general population.

The 62% infection rate calculated by the two media outlets is similar to the 66% estimate the Journal calculated earlier this month based on positive cases compared to the average prison population from the end of March to the end of October. The Department of Corrections has not provided the unique number of prisoners it's had since the pandemic began.

There have been 2,323 positive cases among prisoners and 174 self-reported cases among DOC workers, according to Dec. 18 data. Five prisoners but no workers have died.


While the DOC and Department of Health instituted policies to mitigate the virus from spreading among prisoners and staff there have been no efforts to reduce the risk by shrinking the prison population. Other states have done this through their governor, prison system, parole board, legislature or on the order of a judge. Some South Dakota judges, sheriffs and state's attorneys have taken action to reduce jail populations

South Dakota prison and jail inmates will be prioritized above the general public but one step behind correctional workers and first responders, according to the DOH's COVID-19 vaccination website

These groups are all included in Phase 1 of South Dakota’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, which is for groups that are at higher risk of contracting the virus, spreading it or having a severe outcome once infected. Phase 1 also includes groups — such as first responders, teachers and critical infrastructure workers — that if infected, would create a negative impact for the entire society.

Phase 1 is broken into five sub-phases labeled A through E.

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Some health care providers who work in jails and prisons may be vaccinated in Phase 1A if they count as frontline health care workers who are exposed to patients with COVID-19, according to Daniel Bucheli, spokesman for the DOH. 

Phase 1A includes 19,000 people, according to an FAQ page by the DOH. South Dakota may move into Phase 1B this week, Bucheli said. That phase includes 11,000 people who live in nursing and assisted living facilities.

All other correctional workers, as well as law enforcement and emergency medical workers — such as paramedics and EMTs — will be included in Phase 1C.

There are about 885 correctional workers in state prisons and 872 in county jails, according to the DOH's vaccination plan. 

People detained in jails and prisons count as “residents in congregate settings” who will be vaccinated in Phase 1D, Bucheli said. Residents of licensed group homes — such as halfway houses for parolees — are also in this sub-phase.

There are about 3,256 adults incarcerated in South Dakota prisons, the plan says. The plan does not give a number for how many people are currently jailed but says county jails can hold up to 2,332 adults and minors.

The plan does not include tribal jails, likely because the nine tribal nations within the state have opted to receive vaccines through the Indian Health Service. 

All COVID-19 vaccines provided by the federal government will be free to the recipient, Bucheli said. The DOC will be paying for prisoners' vaccines. 

The general public and at-risk groups will be able to receive the vaccine in Phase 2 which is expected to begin in 2021, according to the DOH's FAQ page. The general public will continue to receive the vaccine into Phase 3, which will begin once there is a surplus of doses.

South Dakota has no vaccine mandate, even for those within Phase 1, Bucheli said. However, workplaces can require employees to get vaccinated and fire them if they don't, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said last week.

Federal prisons will vaccinate workers before inmates, the Associated Press reported. The federal prison in Yankton has seen 33 COVID-19 cases among inmates and 13 for staff, according to data from the Bureau of Prisons. Just one inmate has become sick at the federal halfway house in Rapid City that’s run by contractor Geo Group. ​

— Contact Arielle Zionts at

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