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Wisconsin warden and 8 staff members charged following probes into inmate deaths

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The Waupun Correctional Institution is seen Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Waupan, Wis. Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp was jailed Wednesday hours before a scheduled news conference where officials planned to discuss the findings of investigations into multiple deaths at the facility. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Guards at Wisconsin’s oldest maximum-security prison failed to provide basic care for inmates who died on their watch, including one who died of dehydration and another who wasn’t found for at least 12 hours after he died of a stroke, authorities said Wednesday in announcing charges against the warden and eight members of his staff.

Waupun Correctional Institution’s warden, Randall Hepp, is charged with misconduct in public office. The other eight face charges of felony inmate abuse. Three of them are also charged with misconduct.

“We are operating the oldest prison in the state of Wisconsin in a dangerous and reckless manner,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, who led the investigation, said at a news conference announcing the charges.

Hepp faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison if he’s convicted. He announced last week that he planned to retire at the end of June. He said in an email to Waupun staff that he had helped improve “safety and order” at the prison.

This booking photo provided by the Dodge County, Wis., Sheriff’s Office shows Randall Hepp, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Hepp, warden of a maximum-security Wisconsin prison, and eight members of his staff were charged Wednesday following investigations into the deaths of four inmates over the past year, including one that wasn’t discovered until at least 12 hours after the man died. (Dodge County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Hepp’s attorney, Robert Webb, declined to comment.

Three of the four deaths are subject to federal lawsuits. The state Department of Corrections is investigating the prison’s operations, and the governor last year asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into contraband smuggling at the facility.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jared Hoy said in a statement that more than 20 people remain under internal investigation, at least eight are on leave and nine others were fired or have retired since the probe began a year ago. Hoy asked the sheriff to keep his probe open and share all of his findings. Schmidt said he could reopen the investigation if the internal probe reveals additional evidence.

The first of the four inmates who died, Dean Hoffman, killed himself in solitary confinement last June. 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. Schmidt said his death was ruled a homicide due to malnutrition and dehydration.

All of the charges are related to the deaths of Williams and Maier.

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 had fallen in the shower and had to crawl into his cell two days earlier, and a day before that he collapsed on the way back to his cell, but neither fall was documented, the complaint said.

He died of a stroke sometime on Oct. 29, but his body wasn’t discovered until late the next morning, at least 12 hours after he died, according to the complaint. The nurse, sergeant and lieutenant charged in his death never checked on him that night, the complaint said.

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

An inmate told investigators that Maier flooded his cell, resulting in guards turning off his water. Six days before he died, he told a staff member that he “wants water, water, water, all the water in the world” and acted like he was swimming around his cell. Guards also saw him drinking from his toilet, the complaint said.

Guards said they turned the water off and on for Maier, but investigators said no one ever told him when it was on, according to the complaint. Guards also didn’t bring him any food in the four days leading up to his death, the complaint said.

Asked if his employees understand the prison’s water shut-off policy, Hepp told them that policies go out via email but he doesn’t think anybody at any institution really reads them and that no jail in the United States documents inmates’ every meal.

Attorney Mark Hazelbaker is representing Gwendolyn Vick, a nurse charged with abuse in connection with Williams’ death. According to the complaint, a nurse from an earlier shift told her that Williams was laying on the floor of his cell but she never checked on him. She told investigators that she told the guards that she wasn’t sure it was necessary to enter his cell because Williams was always trying to get a hospital trip, the complaint said.

Hazelbaker said Vick is “very sad” that four people died at the prison but she wasn’t responsible for anybody’s death. She’s entitled to be heard on the issues involved in providing prison health care, he said, adding that the real incompetence lies with the Department of Corrections in failing to properly staff and replace the aging prison.

Waupun had a 43% staff vacancy rate at the end of May, according to agency data.

“I can’t stress enough that this is a system failure of massive proportions,” Hazelbaker said. “It is dangerous. People don’t want to work there.”

Waupun’s problems extend beyond the inmate deaths. Gov. Tony Evers’ office said in March that federal investigators were looking into a suspected smuggling ring involving prison employees.

Evers said Wednesday in reaction to the charges being filed that everyone who failed to do their job will be held accountable.

Republican legislators renewed their calls Wednesday for Evers to close the prison in Waupun as well as another maximum-security prison in Green Bay. Both prisons were built in the 1800s.

“Tony Evers can’t keep his head in the sand anymore,” said state Sen. Van Wanggaard, chairperson of the Senate committee that oversees state prisons.

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