- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A surge in low-level drug offenders has forced the South Dakota Women’s Prison to place 20 inmates in a family style house designed to help women connect with their families near the end of their prison terms.

The inmates were moved into the “Parents and Children Together” house on Tuesday, Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk said, after the Pierre campus’ two minimum-security units reached beyond capacity.

The spike in drug offenders and probation violators has put the total female inmate population at 442 - higher than projected after the passage of 2013’s criminal justice reform act.

“If you look at our numbers from last fall, we were right at 382, so we’ve been steadily growing,” Kaemingk told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/1njwV1P ).

Of the new offenders who arrived between July and December, 93 percent were convicted of non-violent offenses, Kaemingk said. About 64 percent were initially charged with class five or class six felonies, both of which now carry a presumption of probation.

Many of the inmates were admitted for probation violations, he said, but others were sentenced to prison directly.

The numbers are a sign that too many people who could get help in their own communities are being sent to prison instead, Kaemingk said.

“We’re getting female inmates that we’re mad at, not inmates we’re scared of,” Kaemingk said. “They’re using prison as a default.”

Another factor is South Dakota’s ingestion statute, which allows prosecutors to charge someone who tests positive for methamphetamine, cocaine or any other scheduled drug with felony drug possession.

Some lawmakers debated removing the ingestion statute during their debate on SB 70, the 2013 law designed to direct non-violent offenders away from prison and into treatment and monitoring programs, but the ingestion remains on the books.

“We’re the only state that has a felony ingestion law on the first offense,” Kaemingk said. “The ingestion law is having a real impact on our prison population.”

The addition of bunk beds to the Parents and Children Together, or PACT house, was a last resort, according to Kaemingk, Assistant Secretary Laurie Feiler and Women’s Prison Warden Steve Allard.

The DOC’s full capacity for female inmates is 480, but that accounts for all the possible housing options.

Maximum and high-medium security female inmates live inside the women’s prison’s four main secure cell blocks, which are not at capacity. Minimum security inmates in Pierre live in two open blocks filled with bunk beds, located in separate buildings on the prison grounds.

DOC wards also live in halfway houses and treatment centers in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Feiler sees those outside options as possible ways to deal with the swelling population of non-violent inmates.

“We have been able to expand our capacity out in the community,” Feiler said.

For now, 20 of those nonviolent inmates will bunk in another building on campus that was never designed to house more than an offender or two at a time.

The “PACT” house is used to let well-behaved inmates the opportunity to spend a weekend with their family in a home-like environment. The idea is to help preserve the family connections necessary for an inmate to succeed upon release.

The walls of each bedroom are adorned with cartoon characters, there is a television and a selection of family-friendly DVDs, along with books, board games and a functional kitchen and dinner table.

Women’s Prison Associate Warden Stephen Allard said he expects that the addition of inmate bunk beds to the “PACT” house will be temporary as the DOC weighs its options.

“We see it as a very temporary situation, we don’t see it as long-term to where it will impact the program itself,” Allard said.

Kaemingk said the DOC will crunch the numbers over the next few weeks to determine if any patterns emerge. The prison has seen steady growth in inmate numbers, but only recently went over the projections prepared through the criminal justice reform act’s provisions.

“We have been a little bit surprised these last few months, too,” Kaemingk said. “We’re trying to work through some of our data and see what we can do going forward.”

SB 70 was backed by Gov. Daugaard as a way to keep the public safe while avoiding the cost of building two new prisons by 2020. Had the bill failed, a new women’s prison would have been necessary by 2015.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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