Prison and jail employees accused of having relationships with inmates

Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 6:19 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Two recent court cases have revealed allegations of staff members within the South Dakota Department of Corrections and a county jail who have crossed the line and developed relationships with inmates.

The DOC’s staff code of ethics states that an inappropriate relationship is not allowed “emotionally, romantically, financially or sexually involved with any offender.” The DOC even requires staff to sign a pledge that they will not engage in inappropriate behavior with inmates.

It appears an encounter is more alluring for some staff than the risk of losing their job, a $4,000 fine, or even two years in jail.

On September 6, the Bon Homme County Grand Jury filed charges against Cassandra Jelsma of engaging in “sexual acts prohibited between prison employees and prisoners.” Three witnesses testified, including the inmate involved, Heith Wiertzema.

Other DOC staff said Jelsma was in charge of the security cameras in prison. Her attorney is requesting any video evidence to back up the charge.

Another inappropriate relationship surfaced at the sentencing hearing for Jackson Phillips on September 8. An investigation reviewing calls from the Minnehaha County Jail concluded Jackson started a relationship with a nurse at the jail in September 2022.

Phillips received a life sentence for the strangulation death of Randi Gerlach. Gerlach’s sister, Kylie, learned of the relationship at the hearing. It is another layer of pain to process.

“I don’t know who in their right mind as an employee would even want to take that step and even put themselves in that position, knowing what he’s in there for,” Kylie said.

She questioned Phillips’ motives.

“Is that how he could possibly make an escape plan?” Kylie asked.

While Phillips’ relationship did not lead to additional charges, in the state prison system, an offender involved in sexual misconduct can be put in restrictive housing for up to ten days and lose privileges for up to 30 days.

We’ve reached out to both the DOC and the Minnehaha County Jail and Sheriff about the employees in question.

Warden Mike Mattson of the jail said the Jackson Phillips and jail nurse tip was forwarded to the Department of Criminal Investigation nothing criminal was found. The nurse is no longer employed through the medical contractor for the jail.

We have not received a response from the DOC.