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Bright lights shine over the Waupun Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wis., on Aug. 6, 2023. The former warden of the prison and eight other employees were charged in connection with multiple inmate deaths. (Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times)

Former Waupun prison warden and employees charged in prisoner deaths

by Mario Koran / The New York Times / Wisconsin Watch
June 5, 2024

The former warden of a Wisconsin prison and eight other prison employees were charged on Wednesday in connection with multiple prisoner deaths over the last year, the local sheriff said.

The prison, Waupun Correctional Institution, about 70 miles northwest of Milwaukee, was the subject of a 2023 report by The New York Times and Wisconsin Watch that found that prisoners had been confined to their cells for months and denied access to medical care.

The prison’s former warden, Randall Hepp, had left his job earlier this week. He was charged with misconduct in public office, a felony. Hepp’s arrest was first reported by The Associated Press. His attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

The other prison employees, most of whom worked as correctional officers and registered nurses, were charged with abuse of a prisoner. Two of the correctional officers and a sergeant were also charged with misconduct.

Former Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp is shown. (Courtesy of Dodge County, Wis., Sheriff’s Office)

In announcing the arrests during a Wednesday news conference, Dale Schmidt, the sheriff for Dodge County, Wisconsin, said Hepp and the other employees had failed to adequately care for prisoners in their custody. Schmidt described in detail four recent deaths, including one involving a prisoner who had not eaten in days and was “drinking sewage water” and “played in the toilet.” The medical examiner said the cause of death was malnutrition and probable dehydration and ruled it a homicide.

Schmidt identified a host of problems, including inadequate staffing, inside the facility that he said had contributed to the deaths.

The Times and Wisconsin Watch reported in February that state lawmakers and prison officials knew for years that they were headed toward a staffing crisis, but took little action to address the shortages.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, called for accountability and justice. “Each and every person who’s failed to do their job to the high level that we expect or treat people in our care with the dignity, humanity, and respect they deserve should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law — it’s that simple,” he said.

The Times and Wisconsin Watch were the first to report that staffing shortages at the prison, a maximum-security facility, had caused it to be locked down for months. Prisoners were confined mostly to their cells, went without regular fresh air and family visits, and faced significant delays in medical care and psychological services. Inmates told The Times and Wisconsin Watch that prisoners who said that they planned to take their lives were ignored.

In the months that followed, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chronicled the four deaths that occurred at the prison, including the suicide of Dean Hoffman, who in June 2023 died in his cell after prison employees failed to give him psychiatric medication, the newspaper reported.

The newspaper also examined the deaths of Cameron Williams, who died in October of a stroke; Tyshun Lemons, who died in October from a drug overdose, and Donald Maier, who died in February from malnutrition and dehydration.

Schmidt said that no employee misconduct was found to be at fault in the overdose death. “Of great concern, however, is the quantity and frequency of contraband being able to be smuggled into Waupun Correctional Facility,” he said.

A recent federal investigation into the smuggling of drugs, cellphones and other items into the prison led to the suspension of 11 prison employees, The Journal Sentinel reported.

Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt talks about investigations into four inmate deaths that occurred at Waupun Correctional Institution during a news conference on June 5, 2024, in Juneau, Wis. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)

During his remarks on Wednesday, Schmidt raised broader concerns about accountability, saying that he alerted Kevin Carr, the secretary of the state Corrections Department at the time, to the problems in February. Schmidt said Carr declined to take personal responsibility and resigned a week later. “I did not find that to be a coincidence,” the sheriff added.

Carr said in an interview that he left his position for family reasons and because he had reached retirement age. He said he made the decision before Maier’s death. Carr also pushed back against Schmidt’s accusation that he had taken no responsibility. “If you look at the number of people we’ve investigated, either fired or disciplined for misconduct at that facility, it’s totally contrary to what he’s saying,” he said.

Schmidt said he was aware of similar concerns at another state maximum-security prison, Green Bay Correctional Institution. He called on state leaders to consider closing and replacing the two facilities and to create new statewide standards for prisons.

When asked if the yearlong lockdown at Waupun played a role in the deaths, Schmidt was adamant that it did not. He acknowledged, however, that the state Corrections Department had failed to properly staff the prison, which is the reason prison officials said they had put the lockdown in place. Vacancy rates for correctional officers at Waupun have dropped in recent months, but are still higher than 42%.

Lonnie Story, a lawyer who is representing several Waupun prisoners in a class-action lawsuit that accuses prison officials of failing to provide adequate physical and mental health care, believes differently.

“The lockdowns aided and abetted the abuse of my clients,” he said. “If it weren’t for the lockdowns, they wouldn’t have had the issues with staffing or medical issues.”

Inside the prison, Kevin Burkes, a prisoner, said he and other prisoners watched on television as news of the warden’s arrest broke.

“We all got to clapping,” he said. “The thing is, he wasn’t the only one responsible.”

Burkes said that despite the news coverage and a pledge from the governor to address the problems, conditions have remained largely unchanged over the past year.

Mario Koran is examining the Wisconsin Department of Corrections as part of The New York Times’ Local Investigations Fellowship.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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