As Waupun Correctional Staff Arrested for Abuse, Lockdown Drags On

June 14, 2024

After Dean Hoffman was transferred to Waupun Correctional Institution in April 2023, his daughter noticed a difference right away. Somehow the maximum-security Wisconsin prison felt more restricted than the one he’d been housed in previously.

“I got one phone call from my dad while he was at Waupun,” Megan Hoffman Kolb told Filter. “He used to call me several times a week, and he would call my mom every single night.”

Hoffman Kolb missed that one call. On June 29, 2023, her father died by suicide in solitary confinement, where he’d been held for the past nine days. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family alleges that he was taken there when he refused to go back into his cell after a shower, telling staff he felt threatened by his cellmate.

“He wasn’t getting the medication he was supposed to,” Hoffman Kolb told Filter. “He died in solitary confinement … because he was feeling threatened by his roommate.”

On June 5, a district attorney opted not to pursue charges related to Hoffman’s death, nor the death of Tyshun Lemons from fentanyl overdose in October 2023. But nine current and former Waupun staff members, including a warden, were charged with abuse and misconduct in connection with the deaths of two other people in custody.

Cameron Williams, 24, died of a stroke October 30, 2023, also while in solitary confinement. Staff had not performed mandatory checks and did not discover Williams had died for at least 12 hours.

Donald Maier, 62, died February 22 of dehydration and malnutrition. Staff had withheld meals and turned off his water. His death was ruled a homicide.

The facility urgently needs more staff, but it also needs to let people out.

“We learned so much,” Hoffman Kolb told Filter of the past 12 months. “The prison was on lockdown. They weren’t being fed hot meals.”

Waupun placed prisoners on lockdown in March 2023, just before Hoffman was transferred there. People inside are regularly restricted to their cells for upwards of 23 hours per day. They’ve been denied recreation time, religious services, visitors and access to the law library. Showers were only permitted once a week until litigation pressured officials to ease that restriction in February 2024. The lockdown is in its 15th month.

In October 2023, attorney Lonnie Story began represented people in Waupun custody in an ongoing federal lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment. He told Filter that originally Hepp had blamed the lockdown on prisoners’ behavior.

“Once it became an issue in the media, they shifted their answer by saying it was a staffing shortage issue,” Story said. “Their justification flip flopped.”

Wisconsin’s adult prisons currently have an average 14-percent staff vacancy rate, but a 23-percent vacancy rate among maximum-security prisons. The vacancy rate at Waupun is around 43 percent, the highest of any facility in the state. The facility urgently needs more staff, but it also needs to let people out—it’s several hundred people past its capacity. Story noted that despite the overcrowding, many people are still incarcerated were sentenced decades ago on minor drug charges.

Amid multiple other legal actions being pursued by officials and advocates alike, in March the Department of Justice began investigating a contraband conspiracy for which a dozen staff members were placed on administrative leave.

“Persons in our care’ is not a phrase I would use.”

Prison staff are rarely prosecuted for deaths of people under their custody. But Story said something that stood out to him was seeing charges brought against a warden. Randell Hepp was booked at Dodge County Jail on June 5, one week after resigning. He faces one count of felony misconduct in connection with Maier’s death.

“That was something I have not seen except one other time in my past 33 years in this profession,” Story told Filter.

Story has now filed wrongful death claims on behalf of the families of both Hoffman and Lemons.

Conditions at Waupun, which opened in 1851 and is older than any other state prison still in use, include poor or nonexistent medical and mental health care, medications being withheld, and infestations of rats, roaches and birds.

“‘Persons in our care’ is not a phrase I would use in Waupun Correctional Institution,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale J. Schmidt stated June 5. “These people were not cared for.”



Photograph of Waupun Correctional Institution via Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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