Inmates: Treatment needed, not prisonSpringfield convict class discusses state justice overhaul.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
SPRINGFIELD — A group of inmates in one of South Dakota’s prisons agrees with Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other state leaders: Prison reform is needed.
Daugaard and other South Dakota officials formulated their plan by researching the issue, reading reports and conducting meetings.
The nine inmates that The Daily Republic was allowed to observe as they discussed the issue in an education class at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield offered their perspective based on their life experiences.
Although the newspaper was allowed to sit in on the class as part of an agreement with the state Department of Corrections, it was not allowed to directly question anyone or ask their names.
The men, wearing light green clothing marked with the word “INMATE,” joked and laughed as they entered the classroom, located in the Science Building, which was built in 1911. Education Supervisor Lori Drotzmann taught the cognitive behavior class.
The prison is located at the site of the former University of South Dakota at Springfield, and it still maintains the appearance of a college campus, with brick buildings, lawns and winding sidewalks. The school closed, and the prison opened, in 1984.
But the tall fences topped with razor wire, the armed guards and the requirement that all visitors carry an alarm button to summon staff if needed reminds visitors that this is a prison.
While most of the offenders are considered nonviolent and low-risk, there are sex offenders and people who committed serious crimes, Drotzmann said.
She was teaching a class called “Thinking for a Change” and allowed the newspaper staffers to explain why they were there.
That led to a surge of comments and questions from the inmates. While most were about their own futures, which the reporters were unable to answer, the inmates also discussed the reason they are behind bars.
One man said he had been convicted of drunken driving five times. Another man freely admitted to being “a drug addict” and said that led to his incarceration.
“It’s not prison I need,” he said. “It’s treatment.”
Another man said he felt he was not a risk to the community; he said he just liked to smoke marijuana.
“I’ve been trying and I stumbled,” he said. “I’ve fallen a couple times, but I’m serious. I want to get out.”
Drotzmann told them several times not to minimize their behavior. She also asked them what they would do when they were allowed to exit prison, and start fresh outside.
Drotzmann asked them how they are learning to deal with anger and frustration.
“What did you do any different?” she said. “What did you change?”
One man said he would welcome strict supervision if he was allowed to leave prison, as the new plan calls for once it takes effect this summer.
“It’s be sober out there, or sober in here,” he said.
Other inmates said they feel nonviolent offenders could thrive outside of prison walls. They said the idea of keeping them in their communities could work. They just need that chance, rather than being warehoused in a prison, they said.
Drotzmann said she loves her job - “I really do” — and said she tells the men she looks forward to seeing them in the mall, and other places outside prison walls.
She once owned a preschool in Yankton, where she lives with her family, but has taught at the prison for 12 years. Drotzmann said she feels safe and has never been harmed or threatened by an inmate. But she admitted inmates have raised their voices or acted upset during some classes. “Yes, guards have to be called,” Drotzmann said. “I’m not going to suggest it doesn’t happen.” The inmates view education as a privilege, she said, and want to keep coming to class. If they misbehave and end up “in the shoe,” they have to miss class, Drotzmann said. On the grease board at the front of the classroom, a short saying is written. “Success is not final. “Failure is not fatal. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”