Political fallout from the arrests of Waupun prison staff

After nine employees of Waupun Correctional Institution were arrested on felony charges related to prisoner deaths, ongoing political disputes over the state budget and workers took on new intensity.

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

June 7, 2024 • Southeast Region

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Nine employees at the Waupun Correctional Institution — including the warden — have been arrested and charged for abuse of a prisoner and misconduct in office. Once again there are calls to close the oldest prison in Wisconsin.

“We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin at a dangerous and reckless manner,” said Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, who did not mince words at a June 5 press conference where he released the details from an investigation into the deaths of multiple inmates at the Waupun Correctional Institute.

“As the sheriff, I am angered at how these men were treated and how they died,” Schmidt said.

There have been four deaths since June 2023, and while the sheriff expressed concern about the treatment of all four inmates, only two deaths resulted in felony charges.

Two officers and a nurse are charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facility — for repeatedly failing to check on an inmate who died of a stroke in October 2023.

An inmate’s death in February led to seven employees charged with abuse of a resident and misconduct in office/failure to perform a known duty.

In that case, an inmate’s water was turned on and off over the course of multiple days, with no record staff let the mentally ill inmate know when water was available.

Video evidence shows the guards also failed to deliver meals and medication and then falsified records showing they had checked on the inmate.

“The cause of death: probable dehydration and failure to thrive due to malnutrition,” said Schmidt.

The death was ruled a homicide, but no one will be charged for that. Instead, the sheriff says the death was a result of a lack of staffing, training and accountability.

That’s why Warden Randall Hepp was charged with felony misconduct.

In an interview with investigators, Warden Hepp said, “This is the inevitable outcome of a long-term staffing deficit in this type of environment, this is what you are going to get.”

“We are failing to properly staff these facilities. Waupun Correctional has over 50% vacancy of staff,” Schmidt noted.

Waupun is so understaffed inmates have been on a type of lockdown called a modified movement plan for more than a year.

The FBI and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections both have open investigations into the deaths at Waupun, and multiple civil lawsuits have been filed.

Corrections makes up a large portion of the state budget — so it’s always been political — and it didn’t take long for lawmakers to point fingers.

Republicans blamed the leadership of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and promised investigations.

Some Democrats called for Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institution, the state’s second oldest prison to be closed, while Evers put out a statement promising to release the results of the state’s internal investigation immediately.

“Nothing gets fixed, because they blame each other, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, said Rohn Bishop, who is the mayor of Waupun.

He said Wisconsin’s prisons have been ignored for too long, .and after Act 10 removed union protections, staffing and morale crashed.

“The last few governors, I don’t think have done much for Corrections. You can go back. Scott Walker never came to Waupun and never visited a prison. Tony Evers has done that, but I don’t think he’s taken the bull by the horns and fixed any of these problems,” said Bishop.

Schmidt said the solution is obvious.

“My recommendations to the state of Wisconsin: Are you seriously consider renovating the housing units, or closing and replacing Waupun Correctional and Green Bay Correctional?” the sheriff said.

Bishop said he will oppose any effort to close down Waupun Correctional Institution. As the state’s oldest prison, it’s part of the fabric of the community, located just two blocks off Main Street and surrounded on all sides by homes and churches.

“The problem isn’t the building. The problem is it was understaffed. And there’s policies from up above that need to be fixed,” Bishop said. “There’s a lot of blame to go around, and I think there’s a lot of blame to go back a good 15 years.”

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