24 October 2019

Update from the Pen - The Lifer's Group

Up at the pen, everyone's eyeing the upcoming legislative session with great interest.  The hot new issue right now is South Dakota's "possession by ingestion" law, which makes ingestion of any illegal drug - from marijuana to meth to heroin - a felony:
What that means is, whether you smoked marijuana or ingested something else into your system in state or out of state, if you get pulled over and you have a controlled substance in your blood stream, that is considered possession. You could also be charged with a felony depending how much is in your system.  (KOTATV)  
NOTE:  South Dakota is the only state in America in which first offense of possession by ingestion is a felony; in all other states it's a misdemeanor.

There's a legislative committee studying it, which is good.  Of course, we have the split between those who see lowering from a felony to a misdemeanor is just "watering down the drug laws".
Minnehaha County State's Attorney Aaron McGowan agreed that an ingestion misdemeanor would be disastrous. The nature of addiction is "so volatile" that his office typically sees an escalation to more serious crimes, including theft and homicide, he said.   (Argus)
Considering that South Dakota is bordered by states (MN, IA, ND, MT, NE) that have either medical marijuana and/or decriminalized marijuana, I doubt that everyone who caught a buzz in another state is coming home to kill someone.  Granted, meth is a different story - but shouldn't marijuana at least be taken off the list?

The other problem raised by legislators is, as always, cost.  Who's going to pay for treatment for all these addicts if we just "let them go" (although the idea is supervised treatment, folks!), and where is the money going to come from?

Imagine if everyone arrested for their first DUI was charged with a felony with mandatory sentencing in prison? We'd have to build a lot more prisons.  And speaking of prison cells, when legislators talk about the expense of drug and alcohol treatment, and where the money's going to come from - why don't they ever ask where the money's going to come from to pay for the $30,000-$61,000 per year it costs to house one inmate?

South Dakota Pen 2.jpg
South Dakota State Penitentiary - the Hill
Will keep you posted.

I keep tabs on a lot of issues like this, because Allan and I are entering our third year of being the pink tags (outside volunteer supervisors) for the Lifer's Group at the pen.  And yes, we're still working with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

When we tell a lot of people this, their reaction is one of fear, like we're always walking into Con Air or some Mad Max movie.  The truth is, lifers are a pretty nonviolent bunch.  Very few people want to spend the rest of their lives in constant chaos and violence, especially in prison, and so lifers work hard to create as safe a lifestyle as possible for themselves.  And that's the goal of the Lifer's Group.  To improve their lives, their homes - because (once they've moved past denial and anger to acceptance) the prison is their home, and will be for a very, very, very long time.

So the Lifer's Group has committees - legislative, compassionate outreach, daily life.

Legislatively, there's a number of issues that the Lifer's Group is working on, because some of South Dakota's laws are very unique:
(1) Possession by ingestion as a felony.  (see above)
(2) South Dakota and Maine are the only states in America in which a life sentence is always life without parole.
(3) South Dakota and Oklahoma are the only states in America in which you can get a life sentence for manslaughter.  Since manslaughter - read the definition here - means that you did not intend to kill the person, this is pretty outrageous to me.  How can "without any design to cause death" get the same sentence as premeditated murder?

On the other fronts, the Lifer's Group has been:
(1) Doing suicide watches.  (Yes, they're supervised by staff.)  They tag-team this, because they get called out at all hours of the day and night.  They also sit with the dying (usually another lifer) in the hospice room.  Both of these are very important to them.
NOTE:  We also brought in people from Hospice to talk about how to help dying inmates.

(2) Giving orientation talks to the A&Os (Admission and Orientation inmates, i.e., newcomers) to tell people brand-new to prison where things are, what the rules are, what the unwritten rules are, that they don't have to join gangs, and many other things that newbies can't / won't ask the administration about.  (Yes, they're supervised by staff.)

(3) Everyone would really, really, really like to get Restorative Justice (RJ) started.  This is "a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large."  But it needs trained mediators.  We're still working on having this happen.

(4) Working on getting better stuff from commissary, from better food to better underwear.  (Let's just say that, without commissary, all an inmate gets is the absolute basics.)

(5) We hosted a Religious Enlightenment Conference that got a huge crowd that sat, respectful and attentive, to hear representatives within and outside of the prison talk about their religious customs, traditions, and practices.  Included were Christianity (representatives from both Catholicism and Protestantism), Asateru, Buddhism, Islam, and Native American traditions.  We're going to do it again in late December.

(6) We hosted a Talent Show which was a ton of fun.  Ear-splitting guitar, magic act, comedians (mostly clean), karaoke, and an audience that ranged from inmates, the COs on duty, to a surprising number of staff and COs who were off duty and just stuck around to watch the show.  Good times were had by all.  I knew that we had a good gig going when one guy put on "Old Town Road", and everyone in the room started singing:

Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road
I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more
I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road
I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more (Kio, Kio)

We hope to do it again, in the dead of winter, when everyone needs something to sing along to.


  1. Eve, good luck with the Lifer's Group and some of those laws. There's too many people in prison as it is and not enough are getting rehabilitated for outside life. Been a couple of decades since I was up on The Hill, but at least I was just visiting short time and didn't have to spend the night. Still looks the same from the outside, cold and formidable. Do what you can.

  2. You’re a doing a great thing by helping these prisoners, Eve. I hope you get some of the peace and joy out of it that you are giving to them.
    And what’s up with SD’s draconian weed laws? I get being tough on meth (as you mentioned), but these felony marijuana laws are ridiculous.

  3. I always learn something from your columns.
    The Lifers Group certainly seems like such a worth while endeavor- and good luck with the drug laws. Have they thought of including alcohol and really expanding the inmate population?

  4. Thanks Lawrence and Janice. I certainly believe that my time isn't wasted.
    No, they haven't thought about adding alcohol, I just put that out there as a thought experiment to show how ludicrous it was. But our Governor, Kristi Noem, is determined not to allow even nationally legalized industrial hemp into this state.

  5. Ever notice when political programs turn into massive failures, politicians double down? Trickle-down economics, for example. And harsh drug laws.

    >why don't they ever ask where the money's going to come from?

    Maybe the question should be: Where does the money go to. In Florida, commercially run prisons turned out to be both highly profitable and extremely dangerous, at times a death a day. Taxpayers pay the corporations, the corporations pay the politicians, it all works out.

  6. Leigh, there's nothing more frightening than the private prison system, because (1) it's based on making a profit and (2) the only way to make a profit is to keep the cells jammed full and (3) the only way to keep the cells jammed full is to keep arresting people, whether they're guilty or not, which means (4) keep all the laws on the books, no matter how harsh, ridiculous, or downright wrong. Sigh...


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