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Drugs, cell phones smuggled into Waupun prison set off federal investigation

Gov. Tony Evers requested federal investigation after Waupun prison sweeps found illegal contraband

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

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating a possible conspiracy to bring illegal drugs, cell phones and other prohibited items into a maximum security prison in Wisconsin. Nearly a dozen prison employees have been placed on leave.

After multiple sweeps of Waupun Correctional Institution found inmates had obtained prohibited items, Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Corrections asked the federal government to investigate in June 2023, said Britt Cudaback, a spokesperson for the governor. 

In a statement, she said an initial investigation by the department found that prison employees may have been involved in bringing the contraband into the facility. The DOC also found information “suggesting financial crimes may have occurred,” Cudaback said.

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“Our administration asked the U.S. Department of Justice to leverage federal law enforcement resources to investigate those claims and bring immediate accountability for any individuals participating in circumventing state and federal laws,” she said.

Cudaback added that the Evers administration has been cooperating with federal law enforcement throughout the investigation. DOC Secretary Kevin Carr announced he would retire last week, before the investigation became public.

The revelation of a federal investigation also comes after four inmate deaths at the prison since June. Earlier this week, the Dodge County medical examiner said one of those deaths was from a fentanyl overdose. 

Christine Tartaro, a criminal justice professor at Stockton University, said incidents of prison employees smuggling in prohibited items are fairly common nationally. She said smuggling cell phones and drugs into prison is often quite profitable for employees.

“Cell phones are available in big supply out here, but not so much inside the facility. If you can get one in the facility, they’re worth several times the amount that they are in the free community,” Tartaro said. “The same goes for drugs, which are worth about 10 to 15 times the street value.”

Since last May, 11 Waupun prison employees have been placed on administrative leave, according to the DOC. Of those workers, eight were on paid leave and three were on leave without pay.

The department did not say what positions those employees held, or whether criminal charges are being considered. The DOC, the state Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Waupun prison faces ongoing turmoil

Waupun Correctional Institution has been under a lockdown, described by the DOC as “modified movement,” for almost a year.

In November, Evers and DOC announced they planned to lift some movement restrictions at Waupun, as well as at the maximum security prison in Green Bay, and last month they pledged to increase shower access for inmates. 

But Waupun inmates continue to face restrictions on in-person visits and leisure time. The prison has the worst staffing shortage of any in the state. And DOC data shows Waupun Correctional had a 56.2 percent staffing vacancy rate among correctional officers and sergeants as of Feb. 24.

Tartaro said movement restrictions and limiting family visitation can have a detrimental effect on incarcerated individuals.

“Lockdowns can also either prevent the reforming of bonds between people at home and people in the prison, or break those bonds that already exist,” she said. “That is very important because when people get out, they’re very reliant on those at home to help them with practical matters, such as shelter and money and food, but also with social support.”

As the administration promises to ease restrictions, the state is facing federal lawsuits for cruel and unusual conditions and wrongful death.

A class action lawsuit was filed against the prison and the DOC in October 2023 alleging they failed to provide adequate health care to inmates, creating risk of unnecessary pain and suffering.

And last month, the family of an inmate who committed suicide in Waupun Correctional filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the prison and state corrections officials. The family said officials did not consistently provide the inmate medications, even though he suffered from mental health disorders.