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Waupun prison, Department of Corrections sued for ‘grossly inadequate’ health care

Lawsuit says lockdowns have led to at least one suicide, delays in mental and physical health care

Waupun Correctional Institution
The Waupun Correctional Institution on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Waupun, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections and Waupun Correctional Institution are facing a class action lawsuit alleging they have failed to provide inmates with adequate physical and mental health care.

The suit, filed Thursday in the Eastern District Court of Wisconsin, said the care inmates are receiving is “grossly inadequate” and creates risk of unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury and death.

Waupun Correctional has been in “modified movement,” or a lockdown, for nearly seven months, resulting in delays in medical treatment, violations of dietary restrictions and unsanitary conditions, court documents said.

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Inmates are allegedly allowed one shower per week, one hour of recreational time each week, no in-person family visits, no electronic family visits and no access to the on-site library.

“You’ve got inmates that are not getting adequate medical care,” said Lonnie Story, the attorney representing inmates in the case. “A lot of them have had their medicine discontinued or not received it properly. They’re not getting access to HSU, the Health Services Unit. They’re not getting psychiatric evaluations.”

The lockdown — and lack of adequate mental health services — have led to at least one suicide death, and possibly another that hasn’t been confirmed, the lawsuit states. And other inmates are turning to self-harm “as a remedy for help,” court documents said.

“Isolation poses a grave risk of exacerbation of mental health symptoms, psychiatric injury such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), self-harm, and suicide,” the suit states. “Deprived of the social interaction that is essential to keep them grounded in reality, many prisoners with mental illness experience catastrophic and often irreversible psychiatric deterioration.”

Waupun Correctional Institution
The Waupun Correctional Institution on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Waupun, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

On Wednesday, families of inmates and activists held a protest outside Waupun Correctional Institution, calling for the facility to shut down.

The state Department of Corrections declined to comment on the lawsuit and protest Friday. The agency told WGBA-TV on Wednesday “multiple incidents of assaultive behavior against staff and other persons in our care” led to Waupun Correctional being placed on “modified movement” on March 29.

State prison officials have denied that staffing shortages caused modified movement at facilities, but told Wisconsin Watch that workforce shortages have hurt their ability to lift such restrictions.

In addition to Waupun, inmates at Green Bay Correctional Institution have been facing restricted movement since June, Wisconsin Watch reported. And Stanley Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Chippewa County, has also restricted prisoner movement since last November, citing “current staffing shortages.”

Wisconsin’s prison system has a 32.3 percent staff vacancy rate, and Waupun’s vacancy rate is the worst in the state at 52.8 percent, according to DOC data. Waupun Correctional has 150 vacant full-time positions, state data shows.

Lawsuit claims neglect by DOC, Waupun Correctional violates Eighth Amendment

The lawsuit against DOC and Waupun Correctional said the department’s failure to provide adequate conditions to inmates in isolation violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Inmates at Waupun Correctional have faced “lengthy and dangerous” delays in medical treatment and psychological services, stemming from the modified movement order.

John M. Anderson, 62, was diagnosed with a severe eye condition in May that’s caused eye pain, blurred vision and dark spots in his sight line, the lawsuit states.

Anderson allegedly received responses from the health services unit for roughly five months saying he could not receive optical services “due to the lockdown.” The suit said Anderson has filed “numerous medical emergency forms” and “no treatment whatsoever has been provided.”

Another inmate, Patrick Korkowski, informed officials at Waupun Correctional when he arrived in June he had a “serious, painful” dental issue and required care, the lawsuit said. The tooth causing problems had decayed to the point where the nerve root was exposed, causing constant pain, court documents said.

Korkowski allegedly went four months without treatment “due to the lockdown.” After several teeth were removed, he developed an infection in both sockets of his removed teeth, the lawsuit said. It allegedly took several weeks for Korkowski to get diagnosed and to receive medication.

The lawsuit said another prisoner was battling depression while housed in isolation, repeatedly asking to see a mental health professional because he was suicidal.

“Nothing was done for him, and he committed suicide by hanging on June 29,” the suit said.

Waupun Correctional Institution
The Waupun Correctional Institution on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Waupun, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In addition to the DOC and Waupun Correctional, other defendants in the suit include DOC Secretary Kevin Carr, Deputy Secretary Jared Hoy, Assistant Deputy Secretary Melissa Roberts and Waupun Warden Randall Hepp.

The lawsuit says they have failed to provide necessary medication and medical devices, haven’t hired sufficient health care staff, failed to provide safeguards to prevent suicide attempts, do not provide adequate living conditions and have subjected inmates to “unconstitutional conditions.”

“Despite warnings from their own employees, prisoners and their family members, and advocates about the risk of serious injury and death to prisoners, defendants are deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering to prisoners,” the suit said.

Story said the negative situation at Waupun Correctional comes down to a “failure in leadership” within the prison and DOC, saying the decision to keep the lockdown going this long “borderlines insanity.”

The suit asks the court for damages, as well as changes in prison policies to address health care, staffing, emergency response and living conditions.

“I want declaratory relief, declaring that there are these issues and there is basically a state of emergency that justifies the injunctive relief to bring a loosening of restrictions, (to) get these guys out of their cells some — even if it’s on a rotating basis,” Story, the attorney representing inmates in the case, said. “The issues are lined out there what needs to happen: immediate medical treatment, proper medical treatment, psychological treatment (and) dental treatment.”

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