PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's top prison system officials have been placed on administrative leave following publication of an anonymous report from a prison staffer outlining morale and retention concerns among employees caused by low pay, lack of adequate health care, and sexual harassment from superiors.
Gov. Kristi Noem's office announced she'd made the decision to remove Secretary of Corrections Mike Leidholt and State Penitentiary Warden Darin Young from their positions around 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 13, less than two hours after she'd been briefed about a Bureau of Human Resources internal review over top corrections brass. That investigation stemmed from whistleblower allegations made to a top DOC official in a letter, which was also published Tuesday evening by the governor's office.
"My top priority as governor is keeping South Dakotans safe, and that includes the men and women who work at the State Penitentiary and those who are confined there," Noem said in a statement.
Noem appointed Tim Reisch, former Adjutant General of the South Dakota National Guard, and a former DOC Secretary, as interim secretary.
The author of the two-page anonymous report that instigated the HR review said "the majority (of employees) agree with my thoughts," and said staff had repeatedly "voiced our concerns, but nothing was ... ever done about it."
The final allegation says an erosion of distrust is epitomized by lax reactions by superiors to rampant sexual harassment within the ranks.
"Adding to the distrust," says the letter, "there have been many instances where OICs have taken advantage of their position by attempting to persuade employees sexually."
The report suggests complicity among leadership for an absence of administrative response to sexual assault.
But the report also describes a toxic work culture among prison officers marred by bottom-of-the-region pay, slashed retirement and health care benefits, spurred by legislative inaction, and deficient body armor.
"Costco starts their employees at $16 an hour. Within 5 years, their rate is up to $25 an hour. For retail!" the author says, noting DOC staff, some employed for over two decades, might not make $22 an hour.
"We are in custody of some of the state's most dangerous individuals," said the author, who noted they're equipped with the "cheapest, bottom of the line equipment."
While Noem's announcement says she's tasked administration officials to address the complaints and commission a third-party investigator, it's not immediately clear whether the personnel changes will address wider grievances aired in the report.
For example, the author also looks askance at state lawmakers, arguing, "Thanks to our legislation, it's obvious the state employee's health care is a major burden on the state, despite having a multi-million dollar budget surplus for many years running now."