The South Dakota Department of Corrections has had some of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country.
According to data compiled by The Marshall Project, by June 2021, two out of every three prisoners in the state system tested positive for the virus, which was the fourth highest incidence rate in the country.
Despite these high rates, South Dakota prison officials have still likely under-reported the number of inmates who have had COVID-19. Some inmates, myself included, were not given tests after their cellmates tested positive for coronavirus or when they exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.
On Oct. 26, 2020, every prisoner on B-floor in the Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary was tested for COVID-19. We were each given a cotton swab to stick up our noses to be tested. We all were quarantined in our cells.
On the night of Oct. 30, 2020, my cellmate and I were moved to another section next door, called Mauve section, after we both tested negative. While we moved, a bunch of Admissions & Orientation (A&O) inmates who had tested positive for the virus were brought over to our section. Two were brought into my cell.
These A&O inmates, who recently came in from outside the prison, were standing around with their masks off talking about how they all had tested positive for COVID-19. While my cellie and I moved our belongings, we were in contact with all these inmates who had tested positive, while the corporal just stood and watched.
My cellie and I both began experiencing symptoms about a week later. I myself had difficulty breathing and fell over into the wall and gashed my forehead. When my cellie hit the emergency button, a White Shirt (editor’s note: we think this refers to medical staff) came and looked at me, then left. I stayed up most of the night because I couldn’t breathe. This happened a few nights in a row.
My cellie officially tested positive in November and he was removed from my cell. On several consecutive nights after my cellie was removed, the correctional officer let me out of my cell. I stood in front of it while the nurse put a device on my finger to get heart rate and blood oxygen levels. I was told not to use my inhaler so much.
After my cellie’s positive test, I had to restart a 14-day quarantine period. While I should have been tested again, I wasn’t. And I wasn’t alone. There were many inmates like myself who were not tested twice when they should have been.
It appears to me that, after they gave everyone one test, prison officials didn’t want to give inmates more COVID-19 tests because of the high rate of positive tests. I heard the women’s prison went on lockdown because of the high infection rates, and the Springfield facility also had alarmingly high infection rates. At least seven inmates have died from COVID-19 in the South Dakota State Prison System as of July 2021.
On top of that, prison officials keep changing how they implement COVID-19 procedures. Sometimes we eat with A&O inmates who come from the street. Then we don’t, then we do again. The number of people allowed at a table changes almost daily — sometimes two people, then three or four, then back to two or three — depending on who is working. Wearing masks is not enforced much either. Everything here is ambiguous and subject to change at any time. People suffer because of it.
There needs to be a set standard operating procedure put in place that doesn’t change on a daily basis. Cleaning needs to be done consistently and masks worn consistently.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.