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Family files wrongful death lawsuit after man dies by suicide while in solitary confinement

Federal complaint describes withholding of medication and other mental health care at Waupun Correctional Institution

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

A lawsuit accuses Wisconsin prison officials of deliberate indifference to the mental health needs of an incarcerated man who later died by suicide.

The family of Dean Hoffmann filed the wrongful death complaint this week in U.S. District Court against Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections and multiple prison officials.

Hoffmann had spent nine days in solitary confinement at the maximum security Waupun Correctional Institution when he was found dead by suicide on June 29.

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While he was at Waupun, the suit says Hoffmann did not consistently receive his medication despite suffering from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, hypothyroidism, diabetes and anti-social personality disorder.

Waupun officials have been restricting the movement of prisoners there since late March, citing safety concerns. It’s among the Wisconsin prisons facing a severe shortage of security staff — close to 55 percent of correctional officer and staffing positions at Waupun were vacant as of late last month, according to a department dashboard.

Because of lockdown restrictions, the lawsuit alleges Hoffmann never received a psychological evaluation upon being transferred to Waupun from the maximum-security Dodge prison in early April.

Hoffmann’s family hopes the lawsuit leads to accountability, said attorney Lonnie Story, who’s representing Hoffmann’s daughter, Megan Hoffmann Kolb, in the lawsuit.

“They want to see some substantial changes in the way that the inmates at Waupun and other facilities are being treated — most particularly as far as medical and psychological treatment goes,” Story said in an interview with WPR.

Hoffmann, who was 60 when he died, was sentenced to prison in 2023 for kidnapping and assaulting an ex-girlfriend in 2018. Although a jury found him competent to stand trial, the lawsuit says the Dodge Correctional Institution later classified Hoffmann as having serious mental illness.

Staff at Waupun placed Hoffmann under solitary confinement on June 20 after Hoffmann refused to return to his cell after taking a shower, according to the lawsuit. Hoffmann had complained about threats from his cellmate and said he feared for his safety, the suit alleges.

According to another inmate, Hoffmann told staff before his suicide he was hearing voices that were telling him to kill himself, the lawsuit says.

But despite signs of a mental health crisis, there’s no record of Hoffmann receiving any psychological services while in solitary, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also says the guard who found Hoffmann dead wasn’t wearing a body camera during the course of his shift, despite DOC rules, and that DOC staff walked by Hoffmann’s cell without directly observing him in the early morning before Hoffmann’s body was found.

A Wisconsin’s Department Corrections spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit because the litigation is pending.

Although both Waupun and and Green Bay Correctional, another maximum security prison, remain under lockdown, DOC officials say they’ve lifted some limits in recent months.

At Waupun, prisoners are now allowed to shower twice a week and have access to video visits on the weekends, although the men incarcerated there still face restrictions on their allotted leisure time and in-person visits, according to the DOC.

But Story says more serious problems persist.

“Those are very light fixes,” Story said of the recently-announced lockdown modifications. “They’re not addressing the most egregious problems of all, and that is … lack of medical care, lack of dental care, lack of medication and lack of psychological services.”

The wrongful death lawsuit says staff routinely withheld medications and other care to cut costs and accommodate insufficient staffing. It contends short-staffing contributed to employees failing to follow their own policies for monitoring inmates. It also describes corrections officers being callous toward inmates with mental illness, including by “mocking them and referring to them by demeaning nicknames.”

Story is also representing a group of Wisconsin prisoners in a separate class action lawsuit, which describes “cruel and unusual” conditions at Waupun, including inadequate physical and mental health care.

If you are someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline. org.

Editor’s note: This article was updated with the correct spelling of Dean Hoffmann’s name.