Sweeping changes to S.D. prison seclusion

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - The long, quiet hours Cody DeSersa spent in the state's restrictive housing system changed his life.DeSersa, 41, of Lennox, S.D., has been in and out of prison for more than 15 years, most recently for distribution of marijuan...
Solitary Confinement (Illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - The long, quiet hours Cody DeSersa spent in the state's restrictive housing system changed his life.

DeSersa, 41, of Lennox, S.D., has been in and out of prison for more than 15 years, most recently for distribution of marijuana. When he was first in the state penitentiary around 2000, he joined a gang and found his role as an enforcer.

"I feel successful when I'm in conflict because I can, most of the time, win a physical conflict," DeSersa said Thursday from the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

After several gang-related fights, DeSersa was sent to administrative segregation, located in the G. Norton Jameson Annex - the only long-term segregated prison housing space in the state - located next to the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, in 2002.

DeSersa spent about seven months in administrative segregation, the closest housing option to solitary confinement in South Dakota, in which inmates are separated from others who are housed in the penitentiary, known as the general population.

In 2002, an inmate could spend up to 23 hours a day in a cell, furnished with a toilet, a sink, two beds, shelving and a window.

During that first stint, DeSersa went on a hunger strike and was allowed back into the general population. He served roughly five years before leaving the penitentiary.

After release, DeSersa was arrested again and sentenced to 15 years in prison for distribution or marijuana. He was released on parole but got in a bar fight, he said, and found himself behind bars once more. Inside the prison, he returned to his old habits.

That led to another stint in administrative segregation in 2013, but it wasn't as easy to get out. In 2014, the Department of Corrections implemented sweeping changes to the program.

After seeing the changes, some staffers at the penitentiary believe the program, now called "restrictive housing," is the best in the country for inmates' correction.

'Very proud'

South Dakota Secretary of Corrections Denny Kaemingk said he used to walk through the restrictive housing unit and hear people shout curses, cause disruptions and throw bodily fluids at staff through the gaps on the cell door. Now, the inmates are excited to see him and show off the progress they've made.

"We're very proud of where we are," Kaemingk said. "We're not there yet. I don't know if we'll ever get where we actually want to be, but we're certainly going in the right direction," Kaemingk said.

During his second term at Jameson, DeSersa was in restrictive housing for two years, and he says the stay changed him.

DeSersa took part in the department's moral reconation therapy, which became a requirement for all restrictive housing inmates and asks them to identify positive things about themselves and honestly address negatives.

"'What do you want the world to remember about you?'" DeSersa read from his MRT booklet. "And I wrote, 'If he wanted, he did.' If I wanted to do terrible, I did terrible. If I wanted to do good, I did good, and we're all capable of making good choices."

Since the September 2014 reforms took effect, the restrictive housing population has dropped from 103 to 85, as of September 2016, according to statistics provided by the Department of Corrections.

Violent incidents have also dropped. In September 2014, restrictive housing inmates committed 11.29 violent incidents per 10,000 bed days. By September 2016, the number fell to 1.31, lower than the 3.04 incidents in the general population.

"This is the most difficult percentage of population we have in the state of South Dakota, bar none," Kaemingk said. "(Now) they behave better than the general population."

From segregation to street

Kaemingk was appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in April 2011. When Kaemingk started his term, he looked at the state's administrative segregation problems and saw issues to address, such as finding alternative solutions for the inmates who were released directly from segregated housing to the street.

On the last day of an administrative segregation inmate's sentence, prison staff would put the inmate in handcuffs to walk through the general population and then let them go free into the community.

"I'm not sure where that makes sense, but it certainly didn't to me," Kaemingk said.

In both 2015 and 2016, there were 10 inmates released from restrictive housing to the community. Prior to that, Kaemingk said he saw high-risk releases far more frequently, and many of the individuals were being released straight from restrictive housing.

Before suggesting any changes, Kaemingk sought out restrictive housing programs in other states and requested help from the Crime and Justice Institute, an organization that provides guidance in making criminal justice systems more efficient and effective. South Dakota was the first state in which CJI helped develop a new restrictive housing policy, Kaemingk said.

Through his research, Kaemingk decided inmates needed interaction with other people and the opportunity to get out of their cells.

"When you're in your cell for 23 hours a day and seven days a week ... I think all of us would agree that could exacerbate a mental illness if someone has a mental illness already, and I believe, in certain instances, it can cause a person to have a mental illness," Kaemingk said.

Being in a cell for 23 hours a day was not unusual under the old system, and the inmates weren't given programming to improve their behavior. They were also given nearly all the privileges of the general population, so there was little incentive to get out.

So the department took some privileges away and set up a level system with specific guidelines on how to earn those privileges back.

Step by step

Inmates in restrictive housing start at Level 2, where they're given video programming, five days of recreation a week in a caged enclosure outside or in the pod's day-room area - where a phone is available - and a $10 weekly allowance. The person can schedule a non-contact visit with family or friends once per week, in which the individuals are separated by a partition.

After a minimum of 90 days, an inmate who performed well in treatment and obeyed facility rules could move to Level 3, where they get different programming, seven recreation days a week, a $15 allowance, two non-contact visits and a state-issued TV.

After 90 more days, they could move to Level 4, where they spend at least 120 days, go through the moral reconation therapy program, get $20 a week and unrestrained movement to a recreation enclosure and shower. In addition, they are handcuffed in the front instead of behind the back when they are taken off unit and can be given non-paid work assignments.

Level 5 is a transition level that doesn't technically qualify as restrictive housing, as inmates get more than five hours outside their cells a day. Inmates in other levels get between two and two and a half hours out of their cells a day, Kaemingk said. They are also moved into another section of Jameson Annex where they can see general population inmates and eat meals in a dayroom. They get $30 a week and the potential for contact visits, in which the inmate may have physical contact with his visitors.

Level 1 is reserved for inmates who have significant issues in Level 2. Level 1 inmates are given no programming, get three recreation days per week and receive only hygiene and mail items. As of Thursday, there were no inmates in Level 1, and Kaemingk said it is rarely used. However, if an inmate was moved there, he would likely be alone in a cell. An inmate can stay in Level 1 for up to 15 days, but Kaemingk said no one has ever stayed that long.

In each level, the inmates are rarely, if ever, held in solitary confinement, meaning no contact with others. There are 16 cells inside each restrictive housing pod, so inmates are able to communicate with each other by shouting, and many are given a cell mate.

The penitentiary is also holding three death row inmates, who were sentenced in 1993, 2001 and 2012, in the Level 3 pod. By state statute, the men must be assigned to their own cell and are given different privileges. The Department of Corrections is unable to make any changes to the death row system without legislative action.

Jail in prison

More than half of the inmates housed in the restrictive units are in a security threat group, like gang members. Kaemingk said gang activity is a serious problem within the penitentiary.

But severely mentally ill inmates have long been overrepresented in restrictive housing. In September 2014, there were 17 severely mentally ill individuals in restrictive housing, making up 16.5 percent of the population compared to 3.2 percent in the general population.

In September 2016, there were only four severely mentally ill inmates in restrictive housing, and the percentage in restrictive housing dropped to 4.7 percent, compared to 3.6 percent in the general population.

"I'd like to see none at all, but maybe that's not necessarily reasonable," Kaemingk said.

The Native American population, too, has become more evenly represented. Kaemingk said 28 percent of the penitentiary inmates are Native American, but 68 percent of restrictive housing inmates were Native American in September 2014 due to gang activity.

By September 2016, Native Americans made up 43 percent of restrictive housing inmates, and the prison has hired an expert to teach traditional Native American culture to anyone interested.

Restrictive housing is a nonpunitive housing placement to provide treatment and keep inmates, staff and the community safe. An inmate may also be removed from the general population through disciplinary segregation, in which someone is punished - typically for fewer than 45 days - for a major rule violation.

"It's basically a jail inside of a prison," Kaemingk said.

If an inmate is placed on disciplinary segregation multiple times or commits a very serious infraction, he could be placed in restrictive housing.

Other facilities, like Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, have disciplinary segregation units, but Kaemingk said anyone who continually causes problems will be transferred to Sioux Falls, so there is no restrictive housing for male inmates anywhere else in the state.

Buy-in from inmates and staff

To make restrictive housing successful, the prison also needed buy-in from the staff. Before the reforms, Kaemingk said staff members rotated in and out of the administrative segregation area, and people would use vacation days to avoid working at the site.

Now, there are 21 corrections officers, four unit management staff members and three mental health professionals assigned specifically to the unit. According to Restrictive Housing Manager Jessica Cook, the staff was given every other weekend off and a pay increase, and with a decreasingly rowdy population, there is never a shortage of officers trying to join the restrictive housing staff.

"Everyone who works down here is here because they want to be down here," Cook said. "If someone leaves, there's more people waiting in line."

Associate Warden Troy Ponto agreed, saying his 27 years on the job have been difficult but enjoyable.

"It's a passion to work here to see change. It really is," Ponto said.

Cook said many inmates in restrictive housing actually prefer to be alone, but the staff encourages them to have social contact and keep connections with people at home.

A classroom was also set up in the Jameson Annex with desks equipped with handcuffs and leg irons. It may be difficult to write at times, but six inmates can be brought into one room for programming, where they can also develop social communication skills.

While some inmates may see it as a punishment, Cook said restrictive housing is an important step in rehabilitation and the safety of others.

"Although the offender may see it as a disciplinary sanction, that's not what it is. It's designed to try to get them to a better place," Cook said. "If they're being good and being safe in the program, then my staff are safe. If they leave with the intent to stay out of the program, then the other inmates are safe. And if they maintain it long enough, then when they leave, the public is safe."

'In the right place'

Before the reforms, Kaemingk had "no doubt" some people were placed in restrictive housing who didn't deserve it, but now, he's confident the system is impacting the right people.

"I don't doubt that in a minute. I think the right people are in the right place, and they are at the right level," Kaemingk said.

For DeSersa, the last stint in restrictive housing was enough. His mother and brother died while he was there, and he hated being separated from the general population.

"There was a time when I was back there, and I thought, 'Why am I alive?'" DeSersa said. "I don't like living like this."

DeSersa decided he wanted to be a better father his kids, who range in ages from 7 to 24. For him, that means following prison rules so when his parole hearing comes up in 100 days, he can get out, get back to work in Lennox and be with his family again.

Staying out of trouble isn't easy when his former associates ask him to fight, and he has been in a couple brawls since rejoining the general population, but he has learned to look away when trouble starts because he never wants to be sent back to Jameson Annex and lose contact visits with his children.

"I was back there for two years, and the only contact I had was someone grabbing my wrist and cuffing me. I can't explain how wonderful it felt to hug both my little ones," DeSersa said. "I did my part being a good dad, and that means I'm moving toward the door and moving toward going home."