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Noem suspends 2 prison heads following harassment complaint

July 14, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2020, file photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls, S.D. Late Tuesday, July 13, 2021, Noem suspended her cabinet secretary overseeing the state's prisons, as well as the warden of the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls, following an anonymous complaint that alleged supervising corrections officers regularly sexually harassed their fellow employees, low employee morale and nepotism in promotions. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP, File)
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FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2020, file photo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Sioux Falls, S.D. Late Tuesday, July 13, 2021, Noem suspended her cabinet secretary overseeing the state's prisons, as well as the warden of the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls, following an anonymous complaint that alleged supervising corrections officers regularly sexually harassed their fellow employees, low employee morale and nepotism in promotions. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP, File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem suspended her Cabinet secretary overseeing state prisons and the warden of the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls, following an anonymous complaint that alleged supervising corrections officers regularly sexually harassed their fellow employees, employee morale is low and promotions are plagued by nepotism.

The governor said she was briefed around 7 p.m. Tuesday on an internal review from the Bureau of Human Resources that was prompted by the anonymous complaint. Less than three hours later, Noem said she was putting Secretary of Corrections Mike Leidholt and State Penitentiary Warden Darin Young on administrative leave and commissioning an investigation into the allegations. The complaints had been known to state officials for months, according to the organization that represents state employees.

The two pages of the complaint released by Noem’s office do not name either Leidholt or Young, but allege that supervising corrections officers at the prison were allowed to sexually harass employees and that attempts to report the harassment were ignored. The complaint states that schedules at the prison were adjusted so the officers could “work in the same vicinities as their interest/victims.” It also alleges that employees who did not give in to the harassment were made to ”suffer by being placed in less desirable posts or something of the sort.”

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The complaint further alleges that employee morale was low amid wages that lagged behind other industries, corrections officers did not have body armor that was “up to standards,” and that promotions were based on personal connections.

Leidholt and Young did not respond to requests for comment sent to their government-issued emails or messages left at phone numbers listed to their names.

The anonymous complaint was first made in early May, according to Eric Ollila, the director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization that lobbies for state government workers. He said that starting in March, he began receiving a “record number” of complaints from employees of the Department of Corrections.

The governor’s office did not respond to a question on when the Bureau of Human Resources began its internal review.

“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,” the governor said in the statement announcing the suspensions.

Ollila attributed the situation to mounting pressure on state employees from a combination of the coronavirus pandemic, recent cuts to benefits and perennial struggles to get raises.

State prisons saw widespread outbreaks of the virus among inmates and staff last year, with two out of every three prisoners infected at some point. That rate was one of the highest in the country, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

“The pandemic really put corrections officers under immense pressure,” Ollila said.

He also pointed to a recent change to state employee health care plans that requires them to pay premiums for health insurance. The governor pushed that change through the Legislature this year, arguing it would free up money for raises and make the health care plans financially viable.

Democratic state Sen. Reynold Nesiba has also attempted to raise the issue of low employee morale and high turnover at the prison in recent months. He said employees have complained to him about safety concerns and wages that are not competitive with other jobs in the area.

“We are not paying our workers enough and the benefits that used to be really great are no longer,” he said. “I’m sincerely worried about the safety of our staff and the inmates.”

Noem said she has assigned two members of her Cabinet to conduct an internal review of the prison, as well as commission a third-party investigation.

Noem also appointed Tim Reisch, who worked as corrections secretary from 2003 to 2011, as the interim head of the Department of Corrections. She temporarily appointed Doug Clark, the department’s deputy secretary, as acting warden of the state penitentiary.