Nearly Half of South Dakota Prison Population Tests Positive for Covid-19

11.02.20

Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Elisha Page/AP

Nearly half of the 3,347 people incarcerated in South Dakota’s prison system have tested positive for Covid-19, according to data from the state’s department of corrections.

Incarcerated people face heightened risks of contracting Covid-19 and becoming seriously ill. Social distancing is impossible for people confined in overcrowded prison dormitories with shared toilets and showers, and in many facilities, people have reported being unable to access masks, hand sanitizer, and even soap.

As a result, many of the largest outbreaks in the country are linked to correctional facilities. Incarcerated people are vulnerable to severe cases of the coronavirus, mainly because older adults make up a larger share of the prison population than people under 25. Older people in prison are more likely to be in poor health and have limited access to quality medical care, which increases the risk of death from Covid-19.

South Dakota’s department of corrections is doing mass testing in all of its correctional facilities, secretary of corrections Mike Leidholt told ABC News. He said that those who test positive are being quarantined, and all inmates and staff are wearing masks.

But South Dakota’s daily infections, hospitalizations, testing positivity rate, and deaths are all on the rise across the state. Prison officials have cut off prisoners’ access to work programs and volunteer opportunities and denied them in-person visits, but prison staff still enter and leave prison facilities.

“This idea that a correctional facility can be cordoned off and sealed doesn’t reflect reality,” Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, told ABC. “That’s magical thinking.”

Like most states, South Dakota has failed to take the step that experts recommend to stop the spread of Covid-19 inside prisons—releasing incarcerated people who are not a risk to public safety or are elderly or infirm.