June 21st, 2024

Wisconsin warden and eight staff members charged following probes into inmate deaths

By Todd Richmond And Scott Bauer, The Associated Press on June 5, 2024.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The warden of a maximum-security Wisconsin prison and eight members of his staff have been charged following investigations into the deaths of four inmates at the troubled facility over the past year.

Waupun Correctional Institution’s warden, Randall Hepp, is charged with misconduct in public office, Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, who led the investigations into the deaths, said at a news conference. The remaining staff face felony charges of abuse of residents of penal facilities.

“We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin in a dangerous and reckless manner,” Schmidt said, referring to the Waupon facility.

If convicted, Hepp faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

All nine defendants, including had court appearances Wednesday afternoon, said Schmidt.

All nine defendants no longer work for the state Department of Corrections or have been put on unpaid leave, the agency said in a statement. Prior to the charges, all of those charged except for the warden were either under ongoing internal investigation, had been placed on leave or fired, the corrections department said.

The state will not be providing legal representation to any of those charged, the corrections department said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The warden of a maximum-security prison in Wisconsin was jailed on Wednesday hours before a scheduled news conference where officials were expected to announce even more arrests stemming from investigations into inmate deaths at the troubled lockup.

The arrest of Randall Hepp, who has been warden of the Waupun Correctional Institution since 2020, comes as the head of the state prison system urged the county sheriff to keep the probes open, saying dozens of workers were still under internal investigation, had been placed on leave or had been fired in the past year.

Since last June, four inmates have died at the prison, which is the oldest still operating in Wisconsin. One of the deaths is subject to a federal lawsuit, the state Department of Corrections is investigating the prison’s operations, and the governor last year asked the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved.

Hepp was booked into the Dodge County Jail around 8:20 a.m., online jail records show. The records didn’t offer further details on why he was jailed or what charges he might face.

But state Sen. Van Wanggaard told The Associated Press that the warden and numerous other people will be arrested and charged with crimes related to their work at the prison. Wanggaard said he was briefed on the developments Tuesday by Jared Hoy, head of the state Department of Corrections. Wanggaard is chairman of the state Senate committee that oversees prisons.

Wanggaard said he didn’t know how many people would be charged or what the charges would be, other than that at least some would be felony charges.

In a letter to the sheriff dated Wednesday and obtained by AP, Hoy said more than 20 people remain under internal investigation, at least eight are on administrative leave and nine others were fired or have retired since the Department of Corrections began its probe a year ago.

None of those people were being charged in Dodge County on Wednesday based on a list the sheriff provided, Hoy wrote in the letter. Also, more people are being put on administrative leave as the investigation continues, meaning it’s possible others could be deemed relevant to the sheriff’s department investigation, Hoy said.

Given the ongoing investigation, Hoy asked the sheriff to keep his probe open and share all of his findings to date “as soon as possible and without any further delay.”

Hepp announced on May 28 that he planned to retire at the end of June and that Deputy Warden Brad Mlodzik would take over. Hepp said in an email to Waupun staff that he had helped improve “safety and order” at the prison.

“It is amazing to know how far we have come,” Hepp wrote. “We also know we have more to do.”

Dodge County Jail Sgt. Chad Riter said Hepp’s attorney had visited the warden, but Riter did not know the attorney’s name. Riter didn’t immediately reply to a follow-up message asking whether it would be possible to speak to Hepp and for details about why he was jailed.

Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt planned to hold a news conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss investigations his agency has conducted looking into multiple inmate deaths at Waupun. He said in an email that no information would be released before the event.

Four inmates have died at Waupun since June 2023, when Dean Hoffman killed himself in solitary confinement. Hoffman’s daughter filed a federal lawsuit in February alleging that prison officials failed to provide her father with adequate mental health care and medications.

Tyshun Lemons and Cameron Williams were both found dead at the facility in October. Dodge County Medical Examiner PJ Schoebel said Lemons overdosed on acetyl fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller, and Williams died of a stroke.

Donald Maier was found dead at the prison in February. Authorities have not released any details in that death.

Waupun’s problems don’t end there. Gov. Tony Evers’ office said in March that federal investigators were looking into a suspected smuggling ring involving prison employees.

At the time, the governor’s spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, said sweeps of Waupun housing units revealed people in the prison were obtaining prohibited items such as cellphones and illegal drugs. An initial investigation by the Department of Corrections uncovered allegations that prison employees were involved, including information suggesting “financial crimes” may have occurred, she said.

At least 11 prison employees have been suspended in connection with that probe.

The state Department of Corrections imposed a lockdown at Waupun, and at prisons in Green Bay and Stanley last year due to a shortage of guards. Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging the the conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. That lawsuit is still pending.

Stanley resumed normal operations in November. Movement restrictions have eased at Waupun and Green Bay, but as of the department’s latest update in April, in-person visitation had not resumed at Waupun and recreation time was still limited. Prisoners were being allowed to make phone calls and text using electronic tablets, however.

Waupun is one of five maximum-security prisons in Wisconsin. The facility, built in the 1850s, held 712 inmates as of May 31, according to the state Department of Corrections latest population report. The prison is designed to hold up 882 inmates.

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