South Dakota Secretary of Corrections Mike Leidholt stated that COVID-19 had nothing to do with the decreasing prisoner numbers. He attributed the trend to a cessation of court activities, trials and sentencing hearings.
An April 2020 executive order issued by Governor Kristi Noem is partly responsible for the decrease. The order provided for sanctions other than parole revocations for parolees testing positive on drug screens and other violations that would normally trigger a return trip to prison.
Revocations for the state’s fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020 reflected a monthly average of 54 males and 17 females. The average for the March through June 2020 trimester was 41 males and 12 females, a respective 28 percent and 4.9 percent decrease.
The average daily number of parolees for the last fiscal year was 3,173. June showed a 231 person decline to 3,506.
The Parole Board continued hearing its average 271 monthly cases with the only difference being virtual rather than in-person proceedings. Regarding negative comments for not supporting compassionate prisoner releases due to COVID-19, Liedholt stated, “You can’t just release people who are in custody by order of the court. It would’ve totally overwhelmed our parole services if we just dumped a bunch of people out on the street.”
South Dakota’s prisoner contagion statistics had been impressive compared to many other penal systems. There was only one COVID-19 case reported as of March 23, 2020. However, as of September 18, over 100 prisoners and five staff had tested positive at the Pierre Community Work Center, which is part of the women’s prison in Pierre. Visitation and programming were suspended and mask-wearing and proper hygiene were emphasized.
However, cases exploded later in the year, as they have nationwide, in and out of prisons. As of January 5, 2021, 2,335 prisoners had tested positive and six had died.
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