Bob Dooley

Bob Dooley has spent his adult life in prisons, but he says it’s rewarding.


That’s because the Mike Durfee State Prison warden helps inmates change theirlives.

“I treat them like human beings,” he said. “I treat them fairly, and they recognizeand respect that.”

He also considers his staff as professionals who maintain high standards whileworking under trying conditions.

“We require honest, hard-working individuals with high integrity. We’veraised our standards over the years and work with staff on a lot of training,” he said. “This is a very stressful business, and there’s a lot of burnout. But we have employees who have been here a number of years and are dedicated to what they do.”

Next June, Dooley marks 35 years with the South Dakota Department of Corrections (DOC). He has spent nearly all of it at Springfield, where he helped convert a former college campus into a medium-security prison.

“I was also named the state’s director of prison operations in 2013,” he said. “I supervise all of the other wardens. In that way, we ensure continuity within the Department of Corrections.”

During his tenure, Dooley has seen and worked with historic changes in the South Dakota prison system. The changes involve facilities, inmate numbers andprograms.

At the beginning, Mike Durfee State Prison served as a co-ed facility. A women’s prison was later opened at Pierre, and Springfield became the current all-maleprison.

Dooley oversees nearly 2,000 inmates. He serves as warden for about 1,260 prisoners at Springfield. In addition, around 320 and 300 inmates at the respective Yankton and Rapid City community work centers (formerly trustyunits) fall under his direction.

Springfield operates as a medium-security prison, while Yankton and Rapid City are run as minimum-security facilities.

Dooley doesn’t see his work at Springfield as merely a desk job. Each day, he gets out of the office to learn what’s on the minds of those behind the fence.

“It’s important that the warden always be visible. You have to listen to the staff and inmates,” he said. “I walk the (Springfield) grounds each day, and I stop in the dining hall at meal time because I know that’s where the inmates can be found at the same time.”

Dooley also talks with staff about daily developments and their concerns. MDSP lost a dozen employees when the Yankton Federal Prison Camp opened in the 1980s, but many MDSP employees have remained on staff for many years.

“People asked if we were concerned about escapes across the Missouri River when the (Chief Standing Bear Memorial) bridge opened (in the 1990s),” the warden said. “That hasn’t been a problem. In fact, the bridge opened up a whole labor pool in Nebraska, and many of our staff members come from there.”

Historic Career

Dooley has spent his entire career in law enforcement. He’s continuing a family tradition, as his father worked at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

The younger Dooley started on a different path that took him out of the state for a time. The Sioux Falls native entered the Marine Corps directly out of high school. He served in the Marines for six years.

The experience would later benefit his career.“When I was in the Marines, that (time) was when I gained the most experience working with people,’ he said. “You came up with solutions for immediate problems and stressful situations.”

After leaving the military, he served as a deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County from 1977-1983. The work in one of the nation’s largest cities again exposed him to dangerous situations.

“Los Angeles was very exciting, but it was a tough job with a lot of stress,” he said. “At the same time, I loved South Dakota and wanted to come back.”

He returned to South Dakota in 1983, working as a correctional officer at the state penitentiary.

“My father worked at the state pen for 33 years,” he said. “He retired when I started working there, so we didn’t work together.”

Dooley’s career — and life — changed greatly when then-Warden Herm Solem summoned him to his office.

“It was very unusual to have the warden call you into his office,” Dooley said.

During the visit, the young correctional officer learned he would become part of a historic event. In early 1984, the Legislature approved closing the University of South Dakota-Springfield and turning it into a prison, and he was tabbed as part of the transition.“The warden told me they were … turning (the former college) into a boot camp. I would become the chief drill instructor at Springfield,” Dooley said. “I didn’t even know where Springfield was at the time. I also didn’t know that, in a few weeks, they went from the adult boot camp plans to becoming a co-ed prison.”

A three-person administrative team — Lynne DeLano, Daryl Slykhuis, and Dooley — was charged with converting the campus into a fully-staffed and secure prison within a few months. They drew up policy, hired staff and implemented security measures.

DeLano became warden/superintendent at Springfield. She had been serving as warden for the female prison in Yankton, housed on the Human Services Center grounds.

“Daryl Slykhuis was a captain and my boss,” Dooley said. “I came in as a lieutenant.”

DeLano, Slykhuis and Dooley wrote the policies and procedures for the new prison. They brought their experiences from other correctional units, including the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. In addition, they drew on the American Correctional Association manual as a guide for policies and procedures.

“We posted the orders for running the prison,” Dooley said. “A few (of those orders) are still in place after 34 years, but policies and procedures are updated continually. The more efficient ways of doing things is to keep changing the policies (as needed).”

In the span of a few months, the new prison was ready to take inmates.Staff members were hired and trained for their roles. Newly-installed security measures included the construction of guard towers and the installation of fence. The one fence with bale wire has since been replaced by two fences with razor wire and a sensor.

“At Springfield, there were 27 of us who worked together to prepare things for the opening of the prison,” he said. “In December 1984, we had the 26 female inmates at Yankton who were moved to Springfield and did some cleaning work. In January 1985, male inmates arrived at Springfield, with the first group consisting of 60 prisoners.”

The co-ed facility brought with it a number of challenges, Dooley said.

“I knew there would be difficulties in keeping the male and female inmates apart,” he said. “They had classes and recreation together, but they were separated for meals and were kept in separate dorms for housing units.”

In 1989, the DOC became a state agency. DeLano was appointed as the first Secretary of the Department of Corrections. After her departure, Jim Smith and Mike Durfee served as wardens. Dooley has served in the role since 1995.

A major change came with the 1997 opening of the women’s prison in Pierre, making MDSP an all-male facility. Another change came in 2003, when the Legislature approved more beds for the Sioux Falls and Springfield prisons and a Black Hills trusty unit.

The new barracks opened at Springfield in 2005. With the addition of around 340 beds, the Springfield inmate capacity increased to the current 1,275 beds.

Life Behind Bars

All inmates enter the South Dakota prison system at the Sioux Falls penitentiary. Prisoners can be assigned to Springfield depending on the length of their sentence and other factors such as the inmate’s crime, prior offenses and behavior while in prison.

While the average MDSP inmate stay runs around 18 months, the prison does contain prisoners serving life sentences. Those inmates must meet certain requirements and have been in the DOC system for at least 25 years.

“Sioux Falls Warden Darin Young and I make our recommendations to the DOC secretary on whether a lifer should be transferred to Springfield,” Dooley said. “Right now, there are nine (lifers), and they’re housed with the general population.”

While still in prison, the Springfield inmates find a different environment than at the penitentiary, Dooley said.

“We enforce our rules, but they aren’t as strict here as in Sioux Falls,” he said. “There is more freedom here, and the inmates have the ability to spend time outdoors and to enjoy the air and sunshine.”

MDSP does contain a disciplinary segregation unit, and inmates can be returned to Sioux Falls for violations.

The new prison employees sometime need to adjust to their new work environment, Dooley said.

“Most of them think prison is like what they see on TV,” he said. “We also warn them that the inmates will always try to test the new staff and see how far they can go.”

MDSP has generally avoided major problems when it comes to inmate disturbances, Dooley said. However, one of the best known is the “salad bar riot” in which at least some inmates were upset with the removal of the salad bar from the food service.

Dooley said the disturbance was more a matter of a small group of inmates trying to create unrest.

“They were young punks who were challenging things. They said it was over the salad bar, but we had explained the changes and the inmates generally accepted it,” he said. “Our staff responded immediately with assistance from the DOC, local law enforcement, Bon Homme County sheriff and the Highway Patrol. The patrol created a perimeter around the prison, and the Yankton police chief also asked if we needed assistance.”

Preparing For The Outside

A high percentage of MDSP inmates struggle with alcohol and chemical dependency, which in turn has led to other crimes, Dooley said. The prison assesses their treatment needs.

MDSP serves as a transition, with prisoners preparing to leave the system and enter the outside world. The facility offers job and skill training, along with everyday skills such as balancing a checkbook.

MDSP offers literacy, adult basic education and GED classes. In addition, the prison offers vocation classes such as welding, machine tool, auto body, horticulture and auto mechanics.

The Governor’s House construction program has become one of the best known — and somewhat controversial — vocational programs at the Springfield prison. However, Dooley notes the homes made at the prison aren’t usually profitable or produced by the private sector. In addition, inmates learn or polish skills while providing safe, affordable housing to South Dakota residents, he said.

At the prison, the construction technology inmates build wood cabins for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Other projects include boat docks, fishing docks, and kitchen and bathroom cabinets.Because most MDSP inmates will be released back into society, it’s important they remain in contact with family and friends, Dooley said. “They can maintain a relationship with their children and other family members, and the inmates can talk out personal issues that may arise,” he said.

Many family members may not have transportation or means to make frequent trips to Springfield for visits, the warden said. In those cases, technology such as Skype has kept inmates in touch with others.

MDSP staff members monitor in-person visits and other communication, Dooley said.

In addition, inmates are offered religious and cultural programs covering a wide range of faiths and backgrounds, the warden said.

“We have fantastic volunteers, and 100 percent of their hours are donated,” he said.

The programs cover not only Christian denominations but also Native American, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan and other beliefs.

“Here at the prison, we have the Lakota Council of Tribes for the Native Americans,” the warden said. “We have a sweat lodge, and we do allow botanical sage, but they can’t have any hallucinogenic drugs.”

While such programs have received criticism, Dooley defends them as part of treating inmates as persons while preparing them for their release back into society.

“Most of these inmates, someday they’re going to live down the street (from some of us),” he said. “We want them to be productive citizens when they’re released.”

DOC Secretary Dennis Kaemingk generally participates in a weekly meeting with Dooley, Warden Darin Young from the Sioux Falls penitentiary and Warden Brent Fluke of the women’s prison in Pierre.

“We talk about issues and keep the secretary informed of what’s going on,” Dooley said. “Secretary Kaemingk is willing to listen to new ideas on the rules and how they are implemented. He’s willing to look outside the box at how we can do things better.”

The DOC wants to improve conditions for all parties wherever possible, Dooley said.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve safety for the public, staff and inmates,” he said. “We work with rehabilitation to reduce the inmates’ recidivism, or return to prison.”

On a number of occasions, Dooley runs into former inmates while in public.

“Some inmates ask how I’m doing,” he said. “Others turn and walk the other way.”

When not working, Dooley enjoys spending time with his family. “I’m looking to retire in the not-too-distant future,” he said.In many ways, Dooley said he wouldn’t have imagined what direction his career has taken.

“If you had told me 34 years ago that I would be a warden, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.