Amicus lector
Warden Weber says it’s time to guard the inmates in the kitchen

Budget hearings aren’t the most exciting way to spend a morning, but there are plenty of interesting nuggets about the workings of state government tucked into them.

Department heads appear before the joint appropriations committee to lay out their operations in detail and tell the legislators how much it will cost to run them during the upcoming fiscal year.

If they want more money to hire more people, department heads are expected to explain the need and justify the expenditure. The DOC appeared last Wednesday.

Among the facts presented during the meeting:

- Inmates at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield can build 2-3 houses from the ground up every week. The houses cost under $40,000 to buy and can be shipped anywhere in South Dakota.

- Inmates pay $2 to see a doctor. As most inmates make $.25 per hour at their in-house jobs, so that’s a day’s wages.

- Inmates in work release pay $18 a day for room and board

- Some inmates make up to $20 an hour working metal fabrication for a nonprofit contractor out of Iowa. Those inmates give up much of their money for restitution, child support and fine payments.

-Female inmates at the Women’s Prison in Pierre do data entry. 

-There’s a house on the campus at the Women’s Prison where well-behaving moms and their kids can hang out for as long as a weekend.

- There is no secure juvenile facility in the DOC system, but the DOC is legally bound to hold inmates younger than 18 separately from adults. One of those guys is in the DOC system right now, and taxpayers hand over $180 a day to house him in North Dakota. He comes back here when he turns 18 this Spring.

-There are trailers for rent at the STAR academy in Custer (a juvenile facility) for the employees. Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to suggest the addition of loft space above our office to Randell Beck.

Outgoing warden Doug Weber presented most of the information on adult corrections to committee members.

Weber asked for 3.5 new correctional officers at the state penitentiary. Three of them would work in the kitchen, where 25-odd inmates and employees of Catering by Marlin’s prepare all the meals consumed on the campus.

Currently, there are no officers in the kitchen. There are the caterers, who’ve had the same or similar security training to an officer, but “their primary focus is preparing the meals,” Weber said.

Having that many inmates in a room full of kitchen equipment (knives included) with no correctional officers to oversee security is no longer tenable, he said. It’s too risky.

“It can be a very dangerous place and it’s time to add that security,” Weber said.

Sen. Billie Sutton, D-Burke, asked why the officers are needed now. Was there a particular reason? Some event, perhaps?

Weber said he’d been seen a need for a while. Then he talked about a case in Colorado a few months back where an inmate used the sharp edge gallon container of mixed fruit to slit the throat of a correctional officer. Another officer was seriously injured.

It was a grisly reminder of the dangerous nature of corrections work, Weber said, and the Colorado case, he said “was kind of the straw for me.”

“You’re given a wake-up call every now and then, and you better pay attention to that. If you don’t, you’re kind of remiss,” Weber said.

He didn’t state the tragically obvious: A South Dakota corrections officer was murdered in a minimally-supervised area less than two years ago.

Ron “R.J.” Johnson was the only officer on duty at the Pheasantland Industries building on April 12, 2011, his 63rd birthday and the last day of his life. It wasn’t his normal post. He was covering a shift for a coworker.

Pheasantland, like the kitchen, is full of inmates and potential weapons.

Eric Robert and Rodney Berget, two laundry orderlies with escape histories and violent pasts, ambushed Johnson there, killing him from behind with a lead pipe and wrapping his head in plastic. They got both items from fellow inmate and Pheasantland employee Michael Nordman.

Berget and Robert pleaded guilty to, and received the death penalty for, the first-degree murder of Johnson. Nordman got an additional life sentence.

Robert was executed on Oct. 16, 2012. The prison added officers to Pheasantland immediately following the incident, reviewed security and made over a dozen changes as a result.

Unlike on April 12, 2011, there is only one way in and one way out of Pheasantland for laundry orderlies (or anyone else). Every employee at the pen has a body alarm now. There are more cameras and better lighting throughout the prison.

Here’s another Weber quote from the budget hearing. He’s talking about the kitchen, but the statement is general enough to apply to every area of the penitentiary.

"This work that we do is dangerous. My staff, unarmed, are locked up with literally hundreds of dangerous felons every day,” Weber said. “We manage that risk very well. There’s very few incidents of violence, especially directed at our staff and we want to keep it that way by providing very, very good, quality supervision. If we are going to get into trouble, it’s where we aren’t able to supervise inmates as maybe we should. If inmates are left alone, they generally will get in trouble. Usually not to the extent of hurting someone, but they’ll generally get in trouble.”

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