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What we know about the charges against 9 Waupun employees, alleging abuse of prisoners

Experts say the charges, which are pending in Dodge County Circuit Court, are a relatively rare but not unprecedented

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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)

Nine current and former staffers at Wisconsin’s Waupun prison face felonies following an investigation into a spate of deaths at the maximum-security facility.

Experts say the charges, which are pending in Dodge County Circuit Court, are a relatively rare but not unprecedented instance of corrections workers being prosecuted for alleged neglect of inmates.

Who is charged and what are they charged with?

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Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt recommended criminal charges against staff in the deaths of Donald Maier, 62, and Cameron Williams, 24.

Maier died of dehydration and malnutrition on Feb. 22, 2024, after prison staff failed to bring him meals, investigators said. And employees turned off his access to water after they said he flooded his cell, according to a criminal complaint.

Williams died of a stroke on Oct. 30, 2023, after staff ignored his signs of distress and failed to perform required checks, according to prosecutors. By the time staff went to check his cell, he had likely been dead for at least 12 hours, according to a criminal complaint.

Dodge County District Attorney Andrea Will filed the following charges, all felonies, on Tuesday:

  • Correctional Sergeant Jeramie Chalker, 41, of Brandon is charged with misconduct in office in Maier’s death.
  • Correctional Lieutenant Brandon James Fisher, 29, of Fox Lake is charged with abuse of a residents of a penal facilities in Maier’s death. He also faces that same charge in Williams’ death.
  • Correctional Officer Sarah Am Ransbottom, 35, of Oshkosh is charged with misconduct in office in Maier’s death.
  • Correctional Officer Jamall R. Russell, 39, of Beaver Dam is charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facilities and misconduct in office in Maier’s death.
  • Correctional Sergeant Alexander John Hollfelder, 31, of Waupun is charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facility in Maier’s death.
  • Registered Nurse Jessica Ann Hosfelt, 47, of Oshkosh is charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facility in Maier’s death.
  • Correctional Sergeant Tanner J. Leopold, 27, of Waupun is charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facility in Maier’s death. He faces that same charge in Williams’ death.
  • Registered Nurse Gwendolyn Vick, 50, of Burnett is charged with abuse of a resident of a penal facility in Williams’ death.

Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections says the nine people facing criminal charges are either no longer employed by the department or on unpaid administrative leave.

They’re providing their own legal representation, according to the DOC. Each felony charge could result in up to three-and-a-half years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $10,000.

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

What about other deaths in Waupun?

Schmidt’s investigation looked at total of four deaths among men incarcerated at Waupun.

But, as of Tuesday, Schmidt said he did not currently have evidence to show that the deaths of Dean Hoffman and Tyshun Lemons merited criminal charges.

Hoffman was found dead by suicide on June 29, 2023, while in solitary confinement, and Lemons died of a fentanyl overdose on Oct. 2, 2023.

How often are people prosecuted for abusing prisoners in Wisconsin?

A decades-old Wisconsin law makes it a felony to abuse, neglect or “ill-treat” someone incarcerated in a jail or a prison.

The law has been in several high-profile cases, including when charges were filed six years ago in the 2016 dehydration death of Terrill Thomas. Thomas went one week in his Milwauke County jail cell with water shut off.

Between 2018 and 2023, prosecutors in Wisconsin have filed abuse of a prisoner charges in 11 cases, according a database from the Wisconsin Court System.

At least four of those charges are still pending, and two charges ended in a conviction. One of charge was dismissed, and others resulted in amended charges, the database shows.

Nationwide, it is somewhat uncommon for prison staff to be prosecuted over the deaths of inmates, said Stockton University criminal justice Professor Christine Tartaro.

“It probably doesn’t occur as often as it should, because of the fact that prisons are literally behind closed doors and walls,” Tartaro said. “We usually have to rely on the word of somebody who has either been accused of or convicted of a crime, and so we generally take that person’s word less seriously than we do somebody who was a sworn officer.”

Tartaro said video evidence can be crucial in such cases, but added that presence of cameras is often limited within prisons.

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

What other Waupun investigations are ongoing?

An investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice is ongoing into alleged smuggling of illegal drugs, cell phones and other contraband into Waupun.

That federal investigation is separate from the Dodge County investigation into inmate deaths, Schmidt clarified last week.

And DOC officials say more than 20 employees are being investigated by the department as part of an internal inquiry into Waupun staff conduct that began in March of 2023.

What about civil lawsuits?

Last fall, a group of Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that conditions at the prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

That case is still pending, although last week the judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class action status.

And, in May, the judge dismissed eight of the 10 men who are suing from that case at the request of Wisconsin’s Department of Justice, which is representing the prison system.

Attorneys for the state cited a federal law that requires prisoners to exhaust an internal appeals process for filing suit.

That law, known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, is one reason why it’s challenging for incarcerated people to seek legal redress over mistreatment, said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank which advocates for criminal justice reform.

“It’s much harder than it used to be for people to bring their own lawsuits, and that’s left it up to local law enforcement and state prosecutors and the Department of Justice to bring these lawsuits and I think oftentimes these organizations are working together,” Bertram said. “They don’t have that strong of an intrinsic incentive and holding each other accountable.”

Bertram said criminal charges over prison deaths, like the prosecutions which are ongoing against Waupun staff, are rare.

“There’s just not any transparency into medical issues and issues like overdoses and deaths behind bars, in prisons or in local jails,” Bertram said. “So to get to the point where someone is being criminally charged, a lot of things lined up for that to happen.”

Lonnie Story, the attorney representing Waupun inmates in the lawsuit filed last fall, is also representing the families of people who died in Waupun in multiple other lawsuits.

As of last week, Story had filed wrongful death claims in U.S. District Court on behalf of the estates Hoffman and Lemons. He’s also representing Williams’ mother in a civil rights lawsuit over his death.

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

Is Waupun still under lockdown?

Yes. Inmates at Waupun are still subject to restrictions, known colloquially as lockdown.

Citing safety concerns, Waupun implemented what’s officially known as “modified movement” status in March of last year, in which incarcerated men were forced to spend 23 hours a day in their cells and had access to only one shower per week, according to the lawsuit and other accounts.

Waupun officials say they’ve since lifted most lockdown restrictions, although inmates there still face limits on their weekly recreation time and are barred from having outsiders visit in person.

Those in-person visits from loved ones are expected to resume this summer, according to a progress report from the DOC.

Currently, there are just over 700 men incarcerated at Waupun.

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