South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem seems to have found the perfect use of state prison labor: building a $9,000 black walnut wood desk—and then getting a discount.
That’s the claim at the center of a Dakota News Now investigation, one that finds Noem’s support of the South Dakota State Penitentiary at odds with the work asked of Pheasantland Industries, the prison’s workshop.
After an initial inquiry last year, Noem commissioned an 80-inch long, 3-foot wide Black Walnut desk in April from Pheasantland, which allows inmates to learn a trade for 50 cents an hour. The order, which came from the governor’s office, asked for basic desk cutouts.
Then Noem wanted changes, according to unnamed corrections sources cited by Dakota News Now. She ordered an expansion from 80 inches to more than 100 to accommodate another person, forcing the desk to be redesigned. She later asked for other features, such as brass embossing, a state map on the top, a footrest, and a gun holder.
Some other inclusions were added—and hidden—by the inmates on their own, per the news outlet’s sources: the etched signatures of those who worked on the desk, along with the name of a prison manager Noem fired. Noem fired Pheasantland Director Stefany Bawek last month, though it’s unclear if she is the inscribed name.
Pheasantland totaled the final build at $9,000, but the interim corrections secretary reportedly ordered them to discount the bill. That provided a $3,000 loss to the prison workshop, with Dakota News Now reporting that some inmates’ work was changed from paid time to unspecified “training time” as a result. Pheasantland paid $8.20 per foot for the black walnut boards but, after the discount, the cost for Noem dropped to $2.02, according to the outlet.
Noem spokesman Ian Fury told the Associated Press that the initial cost for the desk was between $5,000 and $6,000 and denied Noem would get a discount. He insisted Noem intended to pay the full cost herself once she receives the final invoice, and taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill.
“She wanted a new desk,” he said, adding that the grand piece may end up in her official office.
To State Sen. Troy Heinert, a Democrat, the desk is just an unnecessary purchase, telling Dakota News Now it was “troubling that the governor needs a $9,000 desk when quite a few South Dakotans don’t have a $9,000 car.”