Prison communications change causes unrest

John Hult - South Dakota Searchlight

By John Hult
South Dakota Searchlight

In a Sunday staff memo, the South Dakota Department of Corrections announced that tablet-based phone calls could soon be available again for inmates and their families – albeit with time constraints.
Tablet-based text and photo messaging will remain suspended indefinitely, the memo says. State officials did not respond to South Dakota Searchlight requests for verification of the memo, which surfaced on a social media support group for inmates and families.  
It’s the latest development in a prison communications shakeup that contributed to two nights of unrest and at least one staff injury last week at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
The DOC shut down tablet-based phone calls and messaging March 8 due to an investigation. No details about that investigation have been released.
In the days after the shutdown, family members and friends got notices on mobile and web platforms telling them that their accounts had been suspended. The DOC did not comment on the change until March 20, when it posted a notice about the investigation to the DOC website.
Inmates have been allowed to make phone calls using landlines since then, but family, friends and inmates have expressed frustration about that setup. During busier times, inmates wait in line for wall phones, and there are 20-minute call time limits. Until March 8, inmates could call from their cells at any time using the tablets.
Last Wednesday, one week after the notice was posted, a disturbance broke out at a state penitentiary cell block known as East Hall. Members of the media standing outside could hear inmates inside yelling “we want phones.”
The next day, Gov. Kristi Noem said in an interview that the unrest began with a dispute over tablets, and said the tablet communications had been suspended because inmates had been using the devices for “nefarious” reasons.
Noem said the state is looking into whether the tablets can be used safely. They are provided for no cost by a contractor in return for commission payments generated by fee-based programs. Inmates and their friends and family members pay the fees when they connect via the messaging or phone apps.
More unrest came Thursday night and continued into Friday morning in East Hall. Late in the day Friday, the DOC told media outlets that an “ongoing search for contraband” was underway in the penitentiary.
Attorney general Marty Jackley’s office, meanwhile, said the Division of Criminal Investigation is working to bring those responsible for the incidents to justice.
The executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization, Eric Ollila, told South Dakota Searchlight that inconsistent security policies were likely also a factor in the unrest. Staff concerns about lax discipline policies have been brewing for months, he said, suggesting that inmates felt empowered to act out.
The Sunday memo is the latest twist in the communication policy saga. It came from Amber Pirraglia, director of prisons. It says the DOC and its inspector general have worked to resolve the investigation into tablet communications.
“In response to the investigation, the messaging app will continue to be disabled, indefinitely,” it reads.
The agency has “worked diligently over the past couple of weeks to establish appropriate guidelines for phone calls on tablets,” the memo says. The new guidelines will limit inmates to three phone calls a day, each no longer than 20 minutes, using either tablets or the wall phones.
“Phone calls could be reinstated as early as this week as we finalize the rollout schedule,” the memo reads.
Inmates and their family members have talked about how tablet phone calls allow for more flexibility, but some have questioned the reasoning behind the three-call daily limit and 20-minute call duration.
Justine Moreau is a French national who met a South Dakota inmate named Richard Madetzke through a mail connection service in 2019. Last fall, after years of daily communications and several in-person visits, the two were married at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield.
She and Madetzke regularly spoke more than three times a day, she said, and they have watched movies together – her from home in France and him from his cell in Springfield – during long calls over the phone.
“We are definitely saving money” since the shutdown of tablet communications, Moreau said.
The resumption of tablet-based calls would be welcome, she said, though she’d rather see communications resume as they were before March 8.
The three-call limit is more concerning than the time limit, she said, though she “doesn’t understand how limiting us to 20 minutes will make a difference.”
More troubling, she said, have been the abrupt changes in communication policy and the lack of transparency from the state on the reasons for them.
“I feel like we are all being punished, and we don’t know why,” Moreau said.

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