‘Order restored’ at penitentiary following ‘disturbance’

A vehicle guards an entryway to the parking lot of the South Dakota State Penitentiary on March 27, 2024. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight).

Makenzie Huber and John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight

SIOUX FALLS — Order was restored late Wednesday after a “disturbance” at the East Hall of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko said.

The statement came more than four hours after initial reports of the incident, and did not address the extent of any staff injuries, though it acknowledged that a staff assault had taken place.

“Order has been restored at the South Dakota State Penitentiary,” Wasko said. “After a disturbance, which included a staff assault, the response followed established protocol and was conducted professionally, swiftly, and thoroughly. Thank you to our corrections officers for doing an outstanding job to safely resolve the situation.”

A call reporting “suspicious activity” on the stretch of North Drive that runs past the penitentiary was logged at 4:03 p.m. by the Sioux Falls Police Department.

Two entryways to the parking lot in front of the penitentiary were temporarily blocked off with road cones.

Loud banging, whistling, yelling and occasional chants of “we want phones” echoed into the evening from within East Hall, one of the two main cell blocks in the 143-year-old facility. By around 8 p.m., the lights were on in the cell block, and the loudest shouting had largely ceased.

The incident comes less than 20 days after the DOC shut down tablet-based phone calls, photo and text messaging and email services, a move that frustrated prisoners and family members. Inmates still had the tablets, which are also used for ebooks, music, a law library and coursework.

The March 8 shutdown was tied to an “investigation pending resolution,” according to a DOC statement posted to the agency’s website on March 20.

One woman on the scene Wednesday evening told South Dakota Searchlight that she drove to the penitentiary when she saw reports of the incident on social media.

She said her significant other is incarcerated and scheduled to be released within days. He called her as she was en route from one of the prison’s wall phones, which are still accessible for inmates. He told her DOC staff were using tear gas to pacify inmates before he abruptly ended the call. He told her the incident began as correctional officers attempted to take away tablets, and at least one inmate refused. South Dakota Searchlight was not able to independently verify the account of the situation.

The most notable modern “riot” on the penitentiary grounds took place in 1993.

According to reporting from the Argus Leader, Rapid City Journal and Associated Press, the 12-hour riot of May 5-6, 1993, started after guards placed an inmate who was intoxicated by inmate-brewed alcohol in his cell. More than 200 inmates were caught up in the prison yard riot, causing $2.4 million in damage to the penitentiary before surrendering the next morning. Two guards were injured, and the riot led to a major overhaul of the prison.

Three inmates were found guilty for their part in the riot, while 32 other inmates involved were disciplined by prison officials in the months following the event. Then-Attorney General Mark Barnett said it would be “impractical” to prosecute all 223 inmates because “it would gum up the court system.” The state penitentiary warden lost his job due to the riot, and Lynne DeLano, South Dakota’s first corrections secretary when the department was created in 1989, was replaced. Penitentiary guards received 5% raises after the riot.