Wisconsin warden, additional staff, charged in inmate deaths at Waupun prisons

Dodge County Sheriff: Understaffing, lack of training, overcrowded facilities contributing to inadequate care of those housed at Waupun

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

The warden and eight other employees of Waupun Correctional Institution were criminally charged Wednesday in connection to the deaths of two inmates at the facility.

One of the two men, Donald Maier, 62, died of dehydration and malnutrition after water was repeatedly turned off in his cell and staff allegedly failed to provide meals. The second, Cameron Williams, 24, died of a stroke after prison staff allegedly repeatedly ignored signs of medical distress, ultimately not checking on him until he had been dead in his cell for 12 hours.

“It infuriated me seeing the things that were happening in that prison,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt told reporters at a press conference announcing the charges Wednesday.

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Schmidt said the charges come after a lengthy investigation into the death of four inmates at Waupun since June 2023.

The sheriff said investigators found no probable cause for criminal charges in two of those deaths; one in which a man died by suicide, the second from a fentanyl overdose.

But in the other two cases, the sheriff’s department recommended charges of misconduct in public office and abuse of residents of a penal institution. 

“These people were not cared for,” Schmidt said of the inmates who died. “And we are going to hold those responsible accountable.”

He said charges were recommended against Warden Randall Hepp, who announced he was stepping down this month. Charges were also recommended against two prison nurses and six correctional officers who were in charge of the men’s care. He said they were all asked to turn themselves in to the sheriff’s department Wednesday morning and would be charged Wednesday afternoon.

Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt speaks at a press conference.
Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, right, speaks at a press conference about his department’s investigation into Waupun Correctional Institution. Charges were filed Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Joe Schulz/WPR

Schmidt had wider criticism of the facility and of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. He said understaffing, a lack of training and overcrowded, outdated facilities are contributing to inadequate care of people housed at the facilities.

“My recommendation to the state of Wisconsin is to seriously consider renovating the housing units or closing and replacing Waupun Correctional and Green Bay Correctional,” he told reporters.

He said he brought his complaints to former DOC Secretary Kevin Carr, who stepped down three days after that conversation.

State and federal authorities began an investigation into the fatalities, with nearly a dozen prison employees placed on leave after sweeps of the prison found illegal drugs and cell phones inside the facility.

In March, a spokesperson for Gov. Tony Evers said the governor and the Department of Corrections asked the federal Department of Justice to investigate a possible conspiracy to bring contraband into the maximum security facility, which housed about 965 inmates as of last year.

Schmidt said his investigators are cooperating with that investigation, but said federal authorities are not looking into the deaths.

At the same time, the prison has been on lockdown during much of the last year because of a chronic shortage of guards, leading to a federal lawsuit.

The sheriff said the lockdowns did not contribute to the deaths.

“I do not believe the lockdowns had anything to do with any of these deaths — any narrative out there that the lockdowns are the cause of these deaths are bogus,” Schmidt said.

Evers calls on Dodge County Sheriff’s Office to continue investigation

During the press conference, Evers released a statement calling on the sheriff’s office to wait to close its investigation while the corrections department’s internal investigation and a federal investigation were ongoing.

“I am directing the DOC to continue their ongoing, internal investigations through to completion, notwithstanding the Dodge County Sheriff indicating his investigation is completed based on charges filed in Dodge County today,” he said in a statement. “I am further directing the department to provide the results of its investigations to the Dodge County Sherriff’s Office for further investigation and potential charges, as is appropriate.”

Schmidt told reporters the sheriff’s office investigation is closed, but could be reopened if more information comes to light. He also said his department’s investigation is separate from the DOC and federal inquiries. 

“We have completed our investigation,” he said. “It’s now their turn to do their own internal investigations. Those are not criminal investigations.”

In a statement, DOC Secretary ​Jared Hoy said his department was in contact with the sheriff’s office and “cooperated fully” with the investigation. 

“At this time, all nine of these individuals against whom criminal charges have now been filed are either no longer employed at the department or are on unpaid administrative leave,” he said. “Prior to these charges, warden excluded, all of these individuals were either under ongoing DOC internal investigation or had been placed on administrative leave or terminated.”

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

The charges against Waupun staff prompted Republican lawmakers to criticize Evers for the DOC’s handling of the situation.

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the state prison system, said Evers bears some responsibility for what happened. He also called for Waupun and Green Bay Correctional to be replaced.

“Five years ago, Gov. Evers said he wanted comprehensive criminal justice reform in order to replace the outdated, inefficient prisons,” Wannggaard said. “Five years later, we’re still waiting for his plan. It’s time for him to govern and lay his cards on the table.”

Republican Reps. Michael Schraa of Oshkosh, chair of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, and Mark Born of Beaver Dam, co-chair of the state’s budget-writing committee, issued a joint statement critical of Evers and the DOC.

“We fear the issues brought to light from this investigation are pervasive, and the legislative committees will be looking further into the problems caused by the lack of leadership by the Evers Administration to better understand the wholeness of the situation,” they stated.

Attorney, criminal justice reform groups weigh in

Lonnie Story, an attorney representing families in wrongful death lawsuits against DOC and Waupun prison officials, said he and the affected families had been in contact with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office before Wednesday’s announcement.

He said they were aware charges may be coming, but they didn’t know the full extent.

“Sadly, I’m not surprised — those conditions are horrendous at Waupun,” he said. “That facility itself is grossly inadequate for housing anyone, much less the overpopulated people in their care.”

Story also said he respects and appreciates Schmidt’s efforts to bring accountability to officials involved. But he disagreed with the sheriff’s assessment that the lockdowns were not a factor.

“I think if there had not been lockdowns (and) if there had been adequate supervision of these people, then they would very most likely be alive today,” he said. “The lockdowns created an environment — from the top down, starting with Warden Hepp — that created a laissez faire attitude among the correctional officers.”

This isn’t the first time guards have been charged in an inmate’s dehydration death in Wisconsin. In 2018, three employees of Milwaukee County Jail were charged after a man died in custody after water was turned off to his cell.

Several criminal justice reform groups also released statements following law enforcement’s press conference Wednesday.

Jerome Dillard, executive director of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing of Wisconsin, said a lack of care and negligence led to the criminal charges against prison officials.

“These arrests are indicative of a broader systemic issue that needs to be addressed,” Dillard said. “We stand with those affected by this neglect and call for immediate and thorough reform to prevent future occurrences.”

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