Charges against warden and guards at Wisconsin’s Shawshank-like prison renew calls to close it

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With a “Shawshank Redemption”-style stone exterior and high castle-like guarded towers, Wisconsin’s oldest prison, built in the 1850s, has long been a target for closure amid concerns about deterioration, extended lockdowns and staffing shortfalls.

The charges brought Wednesday against the warden and eight of his staffers related to the deaths of two inmates there in the past year are only fueling calls for Wisconsin to take action.

“It really made me kind of feel sick yesterday when I saw the complaint,” said Mark Born, a former county jail prison guard who now serves as co-chair of the state Legislature’s budget committee. “It definitely has put the Department of Corrections on notice.”

State Rep. Michael Schraa, chair of the Assembly committee that oversees prisons, said he was shocked when he heard about the charges. He plans to use his legislative authority to issue subpoenas and call public hearings to gather more details.

“It angered me,” Schraa said of the charges. “It just gave me a more resolute determination to get to the bottom of this and to put protocols in place so it doesn’t happen again.”

There have been calls for years, from both Republicans and Democrats, to close both the prison in Waupun and another built in the 1800s in Green Bay. But concerns over job losses in the communities and the cost of building a new prison — perhaps as high as $1 billion — have been stumbling blocks.

The situation in Waupun could force change, said Schraa, a Republican.

“There’s a lot more appetite now to do something with a new prison,” he said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has rebuffed Republican calls for closure in recent years, saying that can’t be done without broader criminal justice reform and a plan for how to house the roughly 1,700 inmates who would be displaced.

Democrats last year proposed prison reforms that didn’t call for hiring more guards or building new facilities. Meanwhile, Republican calls to close one or both of the prisons have floundered.

The focus has been on Waupun over the past year after four inmates died. Families of three of them have filed federal wrongful death lawsuits against the state. There is also a class action lawsuit filed by inmates who allege current conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The prisoners alleged that they can’t access health care, with guards telling them their illnesses are “all in your head” and they should “pray” for a cure. They also maintain that they’re allowed only one shower per week, that they receive no educational programming and aren’t allowed in-person visits with their families, and that the prison is infested with rats and roaches.

The state Corrections Department is investigating the prison’s operations, and the governor last year asked the U.S. Justice Department to look into contraband smuggling at the facility.

“We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin in a dangerous and reckless manner,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt said Wednesday when he announced the charges against the warden and eight others.

All the charges are related to the deaths of inmates Cameron Williams in October and Donald Maier in February.

Williams told an inmate advocate three days before he died that he needed to go to the hospital, but no action was taken, according to a criminal complaint. He died of a stroke sometime Oct. 29, but his body wasn’t discovered until late the next morning, at least 12 hours later, according to the complaint.

Maier had severe mental health problems but either refused or wasn’t given his medication in the eight days before his death, according to a separate complaint.

An inmate told investigators that Maier flooded his cell, resulting in guards turning off his water. Guards also didn’t bring him food in the four days before his death, the complaint said.

Waupun Correctional Institution, the first prison to open in Wisconsin, has suffered from understaffing that resulted in a lockdown in March 2023. Nearly half of the jobs at Waupun, 43%, were vacant at the end of May, according to agency data.

Those familiar with Waupun say its design brings challenges.

“It’s just not how you would build a prison to safely hold and manage individuals anymore,” said Born, the lawmaker who toured the prison and others across the state five years ago. “It takes a lot more staff, a lot more work, to do that.”

Waupun was built vertically rather than horizontally, like modern prisons. Born called it a “castle-like structure” that requires staff and inmates to use many stairs to get from one part of the prison to another.

“It’s a giant concrete, masonry type of building that’s not easy to renovate,” Born said. “It’s challenging when you have to do heating and cooling updates, technology updates. Trying to wire a building like that is very difficult and costly.”