155 inmates at SD women's prison potentially exposed to COVID-19

Nine inmates escaped the minimum-security unit on Monday, hours after an inmate tested positive for COVID-19

By Arielle Zionts
Rapid City Journal

PIERRE, S.D. — 155 inmates in the minimum-security unit at the women's prison in Pierre are under observation after they were potentially exposed to a fellow inmate who tested positive for the coronavirus. And all transfers and parole releases from the unit are suspended for the time being.

The woman who tested positive for COVID-19 remains in isolation and no other South Dakota prisoner has tested positive for the virus, the Department of Corrections posted to its website on Thursday. The woman is being isolated in a solitary confinement cell, inmates and others told the Journal.

The DOC also shared for the first time the specific steps it's taking to keep staff and prisoners safe. It didn't mention if any staff members are being isolated.

Thursday's DOC update provides the most details on its COVID-19 safety measures and the status of inmates at the minimum-security Pierre Community Work Center since the virus broke out. It came a day after the Journal reported that inmates in that unit fear for their safety due to COVID-19.

"We continue to work closely with (the Department of Health) to ensure proper protocols are being followed to ensure the health and safety of our staff and the men and women in custody," the DOC said in the update.

State officials announced during a live news conference on Monday that a woman housed in the work center tested positive for COVID-19. That night, nine women walked away from the unit. The warden of the women's prison resigned on Wednesday.

The DOC had only announced that eight women fled but the Journal confirmed that a ninth woman left before she was arrested in Rapid City and booked into the Pennington County Jail early Tuesday morning. A police email obtained by the Journal described the woman as having symptoms of COVID-19, and a state official confirmed she had been tested.

Officials have not said whether the woman was tested in Pierre or only once she arrived in Rapid City, or whether her specific test has come back yet. However the DOC said there's no new positive cases and as of Thursday afternoon, the DOH's COVID-19 website lists no new cases in Hughes or Pennington counties where the woman was housed.

Safety measures

The DOC is following directions from the DOH and Centers for Disease Control in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to its update.

Specific COVID-19 prevention measures include:

  • Screening staff members by asking them questions and taking their temperature
  • Providing prevention educational materials to staff and inmates
  • Adding extra hand washing stations to DOC facilities
  • Waiving inmate medical co-pays
  • Reducing dental services
  • Ordering more medications
  • Creating isolation and quarantine plans for all facilities
  • Barring work release inmates and parolees from going to their outside jobs and volunteer sites
  • Adjusting schedules to reduce contacts
  • Increasing disinfecting and laundry services
  • Limiting the size of inmate groups during meals and other activities as much as possible
  • Suspending visits from volunteers, friends and families

Gov. Kristi Noem and the DOC said they're not planning any special coronavirus-related early releases but that inmates can go through the standard parole and compassionate release process.

The next parole board meeting is from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time on April 9 at the Jameson Annex in Sioux Falls. Anyone interested in attending the meeting should call the parole board office at 605-367-5040.

Escape update

The nine inmates fled because they were afraid of the virus, another inmate from the work center told the Journal.

Philomene Bone Shirt and Sylvia Red Leaf are still missing and anyone who sees them or knows where they are should contact law enforcement, the DOC said in a news release.

One woman was arrested early Tuesday morning in Rapid City, three were found on the Crow Creek Reservation later that day, and three more women were detained Wednesday evening in Pierre.

These seven women have all been returned to women's prison, but they were booked back into the main unit of the women's prison — not the minimum-security one they used to be housed in — according to the DOC website.

The three women found on the reservation were put in solitary confinement, an inmate told the Journal on Wednesday.

Noem said during her Thursday news conference that three of the escapees were given COVID-19 tests that came back negative.


©2020 Rapid City Journal, S.D.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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