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Evers says he’s easing restrictions at 2 max security prisons amid pressure over lockdowns

A federal lawsuit says conditions at the Waupun prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment

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

Gov. Tony Evers says he’s taking steps to improve conditions inside two of Wisconsin’s oldest prisons.

The announcement follows public pressure amid lockdowns at facilities plagued by overcrowding and under-staffing.

For months, people incarcerated at the Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Insitutions have been largely confined to their cells with limited access to activities and contact with loved ones under what the Department of Corrections calls modified movement status. The restrictions come as more than 40 percent of corrections officer positions remain unfilled at those maximum security men’s prisons.

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In a news release from the governor’s office this week, officials said some of the lockdown restrictions at Waupun and Green Bay have been lifted as of Tuesday.

The Democratic governor also announced plans to reduce over-crowding at Waupun by transferring some of the inmates there to other prisons. And he said officials are working on policy revisions to limit the use of solitary confinement.

“We will continue to use every lever and option available to bolster staffing resources and address vacancy rates to ensure the safety of staff and people in our care while resuming critical programming,” Evers said in a statement.

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

Last month, a group of Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit alleging conditions there amount to cruel and unusual punishment as a lockdown stretches into its seventh month. Those conditions include contaminated water, rodent and cockroach infestations and the denial of adequate physical and mental health care, the complaint says. Among other restrictions, the class-action suit describes inmates losing access to religious services, being limited to one hour of recreation time per week and only getting to shower once a week.

Lonnie Story is an attorney representing the inmates in the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. He said he’s cautiously optimistic about the governor’s announcement.

“Of course, now the proof is in the pudding — we’ve got to see them actually make the necessary changes to get some relief to these guys that are being so horribly treated,” Story said. “I think the media attention and then, most importantly, the class action lawsuit that was filed against them kind of rattled their cage a little bit and got them focused on getting some remedies to these lockdowns.”

In Tuesday’s news release, Evers’ office said religious services are being offered at Waupun and that DOC officials are “working expediently towards making video visitation possible, both from an equipment and staffing perspective” at the facility.

The release says lockdown restrictions on visitation and on recreation time remain in place at both Waupun and Green Bay, and that lockdown restrictions on “personal hygiene frequency” are still in effect at Waupun.

‘Absolutely a living miserable hell’

In an interview Wednesday, Story said, based on conversations with his clients, the medical and psychological needs of inmates still are not being met.

“Everything that I’m receiving is that the lockdown continues, that there’s still the one shower a week, one hour of recreation,” said Story, who referred to conditions in the prison as “absolutely a living miserable hell.”

In recent months, at least three inmates have died at Waupun. At least one person incarcerated there died by suicide and the other deaths remain under investigation.

Dante Cottingham, a criminal justice reform activist who used to be incarcerated at Green Bay Correctional, said while he appreciates the governor taking notice of the situation, his reforms do not go far enough.

“Keeping those men inside Green Bay and Waupun is essentially continuing the torture of those men,” Cottingham said.

Waupun and Green Bay are both more than a century old, and Cottingham says both should be shuttered.

“They were both constructed in 1800s — just structurally, alone, they should be shut down,” Cottingham said.

There were 984 inmates locked up in Green Bay as of last week, which is 235 more inmates than the facility was designed for. Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 prisoners live at Waupun, according to the latest DOC report, bringing it over capacity by 115 inmates.

This week, Evers announced plans to transfer approximately 220 inmates at Waupun to other prisons by March 1. That will allow people incarcerated at Waupun to eventually live with one person to a cell instead of being forced to double up.

“This will help take the pressure off security vacancies at Waupun Correctional Institution, allowing the facility to continue to move towards safely increasing movement,” the news release says.

Officials hope to accomplish the shift by using beds at other facilities that are currently vacant because of short staffing.

“Pay raises secured through the most recent biennial budget and (an) increased number of graduates from recent academy classes will help provide the necessary staffing support to enable those institutions to begin bringing beds back online,” the release says.

Wisconsin’s current budget, which took effect July 1, brought starting pay for corrections officers up to $33 an hour. It also includes additional pay bumps for people who agree to work in higher security facilities or in those with steep vacancy rates.

Nearly 55 percent of corrections officers and sergeant positions are vacant at Waupun and about 40 percent are empty at Green Bay, according to the latest data from a DOC dashboard. That compares to a vacancy rate of 32 percent across all the DOC’s adult facilities.

Wisconsin’s Stanley Correctional Institution has been subjected to modified movement status since early 2023, although the restrictions there have been less stringent than at Waupun and Green Bay, according to the Associated Press. At Stanley, close to 44 percent of corrections officer and sargent positions are unfilled.