Former guards and inmate families urge lawmakers to fix Wisconsin prisons

Jul 9, 2024, 10:43 AM

FILE - This aerial photo shows Lincoln Hills juvenile prison on Dec. 10, 2015, in Irma, Wis. Former...

FILE - This aerial photo shows Lincoln Hills juvenile prison on Dec. 10, 2015, in Irma, Wis. Former guards in Wisconsin prisons and family members of inmates urged lawmakers Tuesday, July 9, to address what they said were systemic problems within the state's prison system going back years. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP, File)

(Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Former guards in Wisconsin prisons and family members of people incarcerated there urged lawmakers Tuesday to address what they said were systemic problems within the state’s prison system going back years.

They detailed allegations of sexual harassment by supervisors, retaliation against prison guards who dare to speak out and abuse of inmates.

The hearing came two weeks after a guard was killed at the state’s youth prison and a month after multiple staffers at a maximum security adult prison were charged in connection with two inmate deaths.

Lawmakers are looking at potential solutions, but the job is difficult because so many current employees are scared to come forward, said state Rep. Michael Schraa, chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee that held Tuesday’s hearing.

“Retaliation is a real thing and we all have experienced it personally,” said Rebecca Aubart, who leads a group called the Ladies of SCI, which advocates for inmates at the Stanley Correctional Institution. “It literally is like pulling teeth to get people to come talk to you.”

She said the problems are “everywhere” and there needs to be a bipartisan effort to fix them.

“It’s not one person’s fault,” Aubart said. “It’s not one administration’s fault.”

Two teenagers imprisoned at the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile facility — one 16-year-old and one 17-year-old — have been charged in connection with a June 24 fight that left counselor Corey Proulx dead. According to the criminal complaints, one of the inmates punched Proulx, who fell and hit his head on concrete pavement. He was 49.

Earlier in June, prosecutors charged Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp and eight members of his staff with various felonies, including misconduct and inmate abuse, in connection with two inmates’ deaths at the maximum security facility since last year. One of the inmates died of a stroke and the other died of dehydration, according to court documents.

Hepp retired in June and is scheduled to appear in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing on the charges.

Two other inmates have died at Waupun over the last year. No one has been charged in those deaths, but federal investigators are probing a suspected smuggling ring at the prison.

Megan Kolb, the daughter of Waupun inmate Dean Hoffmann, who killed himself in solitary confinement in 2023, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in February alleging that Waupun staff failed to provide her father with adequate mental health care and medication.

Kolb testified Tuesday that it has been an “agonizing quest” to get her father’s medical records, which she said showed he wasn’t given medicine he needed and his concerns were ignored.

“My father’s death could have been prevented,” she said.

Spokespeople for Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Corrections did not return messages Tuesday seeking reaction to the hearing.

Evers’ administration, as well as state lawmakers, have pointed to a shortage of prison staff as one reason for problems.

In mid-June, the adult system had about a 15% staff vacancy rate, but the figure was more than triple that at Waupun, the highest of any prison in Wisconsin. About 13% of staff positions were unfilled at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the adjoining Copper Lake School for Girls, according to state records.

The juvenile prison has been under intense scrutiny for years amid abuse allegations and lawsuits by people incarcerated there. In 2017, the state paid more than $25 million to settle a lawsuit and a federal judge appointed a monitor to oversee conditions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. The monitor, who continues to report on conditions at the prison, has said the situation has been improving.

Waupun, the state’s oldest prison, built in the 1850s, has long been a target for closure amid deterioration, extended lockdowns and staffing shortfalls.

Men held there have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging mistreatment, including not being able to access needed health care.

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

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Former guards and inmate families urge lawmakers to fix Wisconsin prisons