Amicus lector
A tour of the South Dakota Women’s Prison

South Dakota is a small state, population-wise. Our prison population is, by extension, also rather small.

That’s not to say that the population can’t be viewed as being too large in a different context - the state recently passed a criminal justice reform package because the prison population was growing too quickly – but in terms of raw numbers, it’s pretty small.

That relatively small population presents specific challenges for the people who manage South Dakota’s inmates that are slightly different than the challenges faced in places like California or Texas.

Take death row, for example. There are inmates in South Dakota on death row, but there isn’t actually a “death row.” The state’s three condemned men are housed with other maximum security inmates in administrative segregation in Sioux Falls.

On Thursday, I toured the facility that perhaps best highlights this issue: The South Dakota Women’s Prison.

Nearly all the women in South Dakota sentenced to DOC custody live there, at least initially. That means everyone, regardless of their crime or security classification, lives on the same campus, which incidentally also houses the DOC’s administrative offices and is the headquarters for the Hughes County Sheriff.

It’s called the Solem Public Safety Center. Here’s what it looks like from the outside.

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There are four cell blocks inside, which encircle a command center with one-way glass where correctional officers monitor everyone. “A” block, on the east side, is for administrative segregation and maximum security inmates. There’s one-way glass there, too, so the inmates walking to the other blocks can’t see inside. Some A block inmates have roommates, some do not. I saw a few cell doors – which are solid metal, not barred – with magnets that read ”assaultive” in all caps.

There’s a wall separating A block from B block, which also is for high-security inmates. Those with in-house jobs, such as data entry or embroidery, wore green outfits. Those without jobs were dressed in khaki. A handful of green and khaki-shirted inmates in B block had the words “maximum security” scrawled on their outfits.

Here’s an old photo of one of them: Daphne Wright. She’s employed at the prison. DOC spokesman Michael Winder and I saw her twice yesterday: We walked by her as she stood in line for dinner, and she walked by us as she came back.

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Wright, you might recall, was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2006 killing and dismemberment of Darlene Vandergiesen in Sioux Falls.

We saw Tammy Kvasnicka, too, who will soon be sentenced a second time for manslaughter in the drunken-driving death of Michael Xayavong. Kvasnicka said hello as she walked back to her block (I covered her weeklong trial and most of the hearings before and after it).

Here she is in 2011.

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Next to B block is C block. D block, which is for the low-medium security inmates, is on the west side of the command center. The blocks are basically big rooms, each with shared space in the middle for playing cards and whatnot, and the cells inside have secure doors.

Empty blocks look like this.

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We also walked by Jessi Owens on Thursday, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as a juvenile for her role in a botched 1998 burglary that ended in the death of a Watertown man named David Bauman. She and Renee Eckes each pleaded guilty to the same charge.

Bauman caught them in the act and attacked Eckes, who threw a hammer to Owens. Both of them ended up hitting him in the head with it.

Owens has a job, too, and she was at work Thursday during my visit. She does low-level administration for the the state Bureau of Administration’s Fleet and Travel, calculating mileage. Her office, which she shares with a handful of other inmates, is next to D block. Eckes was around somewhere, but I don’t recall seeing her and I didn’t ask about her.

Here’s the only photo we have of those two. It was taken in 1998 (Jessi’s the one with the long hair).

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The women’s prison also has an E block for low-risk inmates. That’s a separate building. There are no locked cell doors there, just bunk beds and curtains. It looks like this.

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We saw one other building Thursday, which is used for the Parents and Children Together program. That program lets minimum security inmates hang out with their kids for a weekend. The building is two governor’s houses stuck together with immaculately-painted “theme rooms.” A former inmate with an artistic bent supervised the design of the rooms, which feature Scooby-Doo characters, Disney princesses, PBS kids characters and the like.

Here’s the inside of that building.

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Anyway, back to the security question we started with:

Anyway, this in-the-round structure is the norm in modern corrections (the women’s prison opened in 1997. Prior to that, women were housed at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield). The penitentiary’s Jameson Annex is built the same way. It’s easier to monitor and manage than the liner system used in the old penitentiary. If something happens at one end of the penitentiary, it takes longer for officers to get there. If there’s an emergency, it’s harder to get everyone out and moving.

The block design is especially helpful for jails and places like the women’s prison, where inmates of all security classifications have to live together. Some interaction are inevitable. All the inmates inside – the ones who aren’t in A block, that is - stand in the line for breakfast, lunch and dinner and eat in the same room. They go in shifts, of course, but they share the space and pass by each other. Wright could be standing next to a woman whose drug problems landed her in prison, for example.

There are other challenges with a single facility. Owens and Eckes might have been together for the burglary, but they had conflicting accounts of the details and used those accounts in post-conviction appeals.  Keeping sparring co-conspirators – or any two inmates who don’t like one another - separate and safe would be a lot easier if South Dakota had enough facilities to ship inmates somewhere else.

These challenges aren’t unique to our state or to corrections in general. Even so, seeing everyone together really drives home the point. 

 

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