Charges against warden, guards at Wisconsin’s Shawshank-like prison renew calls to close it

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MADISON, Wis. — With a “Shawshank Redemption”-style stone exterior and high castle-like guard towers, Wisconsin’s oldest prison, built in the 1850s, has long been a target for closure amid concerns about deterioration, extended lockdowns and staffing shortfalls.

The charges brought Wednesday against Randall Hepp, the warden at the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution, and eight of his staffers in the deaths of two inmates are only fueling calls for action.

The Waupun Correctional Institution is seen Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Waupan, Wis. Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp was jailed Wednesday hours before a scheduled news conference where officials planned to discuss the findings of investigations into multiple deaths at the facility. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“That place is a disaster,” said Lonnie Story, an attorney for families of three people who died in the prison within the past year, as well as inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit. “The building needs to be torn down or turned into a museum or whatever they need to do with it.”

State lawmakers say they’re optimistic the charges will spark change after years of inaction.

“It really made me kind of feel sick yesterday when I saw the complaint,” said Mark Born, a former county jail officer who now serves as co-chair of the state Legislature’s budget committee. “It definitely has put the Department of Corrections on notice.”

State Rep. Michael Schraa, chair of the Assembly committee that oversees prisons, said he was shocked when he heard about the charges. He plans to use his legislative authority to issue subpoenas and call public hearings to gather more details.

“It just gave me a more resolute determination to get to the bottom of this and to put protocols in place so it doesn’t happen again,” Schraa said. “There’s a lot more appetite now to do something with a new prison.”

Ongoing concerns

Republicans and Democrats alike have been calling for years to close both the prison in Waupun and another built in the 1800s in Green Bay. But concerns over job losses in the communities and the cost of building a new prison — perhaps as high as $1 billion — have been stumbling blocks.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has rebuffed Republican calls for closure, saying that can’t be done without broader criminal justice reform and a plan for housing the roughly 1,700 inmates who would be displaced.

Democrats last year proposed prison reforms that didn’t call for hiring more guards or building new facilities. Meanwhile, Republican calls to close one or both of the prisons have floundered.

The focus has been on Waupun over the past year after four inmates died. Families of three of them have filed federal wrongful death lawsuits against the state.

Inmates also have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that they can’t access health care, with guards telling them their illnesses are “all in your head” and they should “pray” for cures. They also argue that they’re allowed only one shower per week, receive no educational programming, aren’t allowed in-person visits with their families and the prison is infested with rats and roaches.

The state Corrections Department is investigating the prison’s operations, and the governor last year asked the U.S. Justice Department to look into contraband smuggling at the facility.

“We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin in a dangerous and reckless manner,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt said Wednesday when he announced the charges against the warden and eight others.

Deaths inside

All the charges are related to the deaths of inmates Cameron Williams in October and Donald Maier in February.

Williams told an inmate advocate three days before he died that he needed to go to the hospital, but no action was taken, according to a criminal complaint. He died of a stroke sometime Oct. 29, but his body wasn’t discovered until late the next morning, at least 12 hours later, according to the complaint.

Williams’ mother, Raven Anderson, filed a federal lawsuit in May alleging that her son started pleading for medical help about a week and a half before his death but that guards ignored him. Williams was throwing up blood and “crying and begging” to go to the emergency room for head pain, the lawsuit alleged.

Gwendolyn Vick, a nurse who was charged with abuse in connection with Williams’ death, told investigators that staff referred to Williams as a “frequent flyer” because he demanded medical care frequently in hopes of getting a trip to a hospital.

“He was a typical kind of inmate that we spend a lot of time dealing with at Waupun,” she told investigators.

Maier had severe mental health problems but either refused or wasn’t given his medication in the eight days before his death, according to a separate complaint.

An inmate told investigators that Maier flooded his cell, resulting in guards turning off Maier’s water. Guards also didn’t bring him food in the four days before his death, the complaint said.

Warden blames understaffing

Waupun Correctional Institution, the first prison to open in Wisconsin, has suffered from understaffing that resulted in a lockdown in March 2023. Nearly half of the jobs at Waupun, 43%, were vacant at the end of May, according to agency data.

This booking photo provided by the Dodge County, Wis., Sheriff’s Office shows Randall Hepp, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Hepp, warden of a maximum-security Wisconsin prison, and eight members of his staff were charged Wednesday following investigations into the deaths of four inmates over the past year, including one that wasn’t discovered until at least 12 hours after the man died. (Dodge County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

During an interview with investigators, Hepp blamed Maier’s death at least in part on the staffing shortage, according to a criminal complaint.

When asked by investigators whether his staff understood policies on turning off inmates’ water, Hepp said that policies are emailed out because of employee shortages and that he doesn’t think anyone reads them. Asked if guards track inmates’ meals, the warden said he didn’t think any jail does and asked if that was even possible.

Hepp added that guards have a “just get by” attitude when dealing with inmates, like Maier, whose movement is restricted. Guards move between positions so often to fill vacant posts that they don’t put in much effort with restricted inmates, he said.

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

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