Charges over inmate deaths reignite calls to close Wisconsin’s oldest prison

9 Waupun Correctional Institution staffers are accused of causing inmate deaths

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

Advocates and politicians are renewing their calls to shut down Wisconsin’s oldest prison, after prosecutors charged nine people who worked there with felonies.

The charges filed last week in Dodge County allege that Waupun Correctional Institution employees neglected two inmates and caused their deaths.

Waupun Warden Randy Hepp turned in his resignation last month, shortly before county prosecutors charged him with misconduct in office.

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Other Waupun staff, including nurses and corrections officers, are charged with abusing a prisoner.

Investigators say Waupun inmate Donald Maier, 62, died of dehydration and malnutrition after staff failed to bring him meals. They shut off his water after he flooded his cell, according to a criminal complaint.

And prosecutors say employees ignored signs of distress before another inmate, 24-year-old Cameron Williams, died of a stroke.

Raven Anderson is Williams’ mother. She’s suing over her son’s death and says Waupun’s culture is broken.

“Everything is wrong in there,” Anderson said. “And if they’re not going to change it, they need to close it.”

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

Dodge County Sherrif Dale Schmidt, who investigated deaths at Waupun, has urged state officials to consider making major renovations at Waupun or shutting it down. Parts of the maximum security prison were built before the Civil War, and it’s been plagued by faulty plumbing and rodent infestations.

“It’s built like a castle,” said David Murrell, who was incarcerated at Waupun in the ’90s.

“You don’t get any sun in the cell hall,” Murrell said. “That in and of itself plays on your psyche.”

Murrell, who is now an advocate with a criminal justice reform group called WISDOM, says Wisconsin needs to reduce its incarcerated population so Waupun can be shut down without being replaced.

But Republican state Sen. André Jacque of DePere says that’s not practical. 

“Especially when we’re talking about those with violent infractions that aren’t going to be let off their sentence, there’s just no way that the math works,” said Jacque, who serves on the state Senate’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

Jacque hopes a larger, more modern facility can eventually replace both Waupun and the Green Bay Correctional Institution, another troubled max security prison. Currently, there are over 1,000 men locked up inside Green Bay and about 700 incarcerated at Waupun.

“We can’t just keep slapping Band-Aids on on these facilities,” Jacque said. “Not only is that an astronomical liability for taxpayers, but it’s really just sticking your head in the sand.”

State Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, says while a range of options need to be on the table, funding is a barrier to building a new maximum security lockup. A new prison could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before Wisconsin’s legislative boundaries were redrawn, Schraa’s district included the Waupun prison. He says the region would take a financial hit if the facility is shut down without being repurposed. Schraa has floated the idea of turning Waupun into a minimum security prison with a focus on vocational training.

“Waupun is a vital part of the city of Waupun,” Schraa said. “There’s over 300 employees that work there.”

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

More than 40 percent of corrections officer positions sit empty at Waupun, representing the highest vacancy rate in Wisconsin’s prison system.

Waupun inmates face limits on their recreation time, and are barred from in-person visits under a lockdown that began 14 months ago.

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Justice is investigating allegations that Waupun staff smuggled drugs, cell phones and other contraband into the prison.

And Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections continues its internal inquiry into policy violations related to inmate deaths. 

DOC officials say the staff facing criminal charges are either no longer employed by the department or on unpaid leave.

They’re due in court next month.