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Attorney seeks external review of conditions at Waupun prison amid lawsuit

New motion asks for end to lockdown restrictions, court-appointed monitor

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

New legal filings ask a federal judge to appoint an external monitor to oversee conditions at a troubled state prison. 

For more than a year, state officials have been restricting the activities of inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution under what the Department of Corrections refers to as “modified movement status.”

Prison officials have cited safety concerns amid severe short-staffing.

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Officials say they’ve eased some restrictions in recent months, although prisoners at Waupun still face limits on their recreation time and are cut off from in-person visitation. 

Attorney Lonnie Story is representing a group of Waupun inmates in a federal lawsuit filed last late year. He says the situation at Waupun remains bleak.

“I’m still getting plenty of complaints from inmates that are saying they’re not getting their medications properly,” Story said in an interview with WPR. “They’re not getting them timely. Sometimes they’re not getting them at all. The inmates are still locked down pretty much 24/7.”

The suit describes how inmates have struggled to access physical and mental health care and alleges conditions at the maximum security men’s facility have amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

“One of my inmates has had an exposed nerve in his mouth for eight months, and they’re telling him it could be up to a 14-month wait to see the dentist,” Story said Thursday. “Some other inmates are experiencing an 18-month wait to get treated by a dentist.”

The latest department data shows more than half of corrections officers position remain vacant at Waupun. At prisons statewide, that vacancy rate is about 27 percent.

As of last month, close to a dozen employees had been placed on leave amid a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the alleged smuggling of drugs and other contraband into Waupun.

Motion asks for end to lockdown, external review

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court last week, Story asked for the ability to review any investigative documents, including records from the federal inquiry.

Story’s motion requesting a preliminary injunction also asks for an end to all lockdown restrictions at Waupun. And it asks the court to order an external review into conditions at the prison, including staffing, health care access and “any other pertinent matters relating to the human rights” of Waupun inmates.

“Let’s hammer out some resolutions to these things that work best for both the Department of Justice and the Department of Corrections, as well as the inmates and the citizens of the state of Wisconsin, so this doesn’t have to continue to go into the litigation battle that they seem to want,” Story said.

The goal is to ensure a level of oversight, similar to what’s ongoing at a Wisconsin youth prison, Story said.

For years, a court-appointed monitor has been releasing public reports while inspecting conditions at Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills School for boys and the nearby Copper Lake School for girls. That’s after after a 2017 lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union described abuse of youth at the detention facility.

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

Also included in the recent motion is a plea from Story, asking the court to ensure that prison officials aren’t interfering with attorney-client privilege.

According to the filing, one of the plaintiffs, an inmate named Justin Welch, was written up by a correctional officer after that officer opened and read Welch’s letter to Story’s law firm.

In a conduct report, the officer quotes a letter written by Welch, which read, “BTW they are going to place me by (the name of another inmate) when I  get out in the NCH I will have no choice but to fight him again. This is what the WCI does this time I will hurt him.” 

In an interview with WPR, Story said the DOC later removed its disciplinary action against Welch from Welch’s record after Story got the Department of Justice to intervene.

But, Story says, the incident raises serious concerns about the ability of inmates to communicate confidentially with their attorneys.

“The clear violation of the First Amendment, and the confidentiality between counsel and client, is reprehensible,” the motion says. “It is even more reprehensible that this violation is used as a subterfuge to then retaliate against a named Plaintiff in the subject litigation.”

State argues most inmates suing should be dismissed from case

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections has asked the court to dismiss eight of the 10 inmates who are suing from the case.

The state argues those men did not exhaust an internal complaints process before they filed suit.

DOC spokesperson Beth Hardtke said the department’s practice is not to comment on ongoing litigation. She said the prison system “continues to assess” modified movement at Waupun and the Green Bay Correctional Institution, another maximum security men’s prison.

Waupun has been under modified movement status since March 29 of last year, while Green Bay has faced those restrictions since June.

“At Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI),  persons in our care are leaving their cells and moving throughout the facility to access health care, mental health services, attend religious services, perform job assignments, take part in two periods of recreation per week and more,” Hardtke wrote in an email.

Prison officials say, for the most part, normal rules of operation have been restored at Green Bay, although inmates there still face restrictions on their allotted weekly recreation time.

“To be clear: Persons in our care at both facilities are still moving throughout the facility and accessing programs and services,” Hardtke wrote in an email.

In his latest motion, Story asked the court to grant class action status in the lawsuit. That could allow the more than 900 men who have been incarcerated at Waupun since the lockdown began to be included as plaintiffs.

Earlier this year, Story filed a separate wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of a man who died by suicide while in solitary confinement during Waupun’s lockdown. That suit alleges prison officials showed deliberate indifference to the man’s mental health needs, and denied him adequate medications and psychological care.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.