Wisconsin warden, 8 other staffers face criminal charges in inmate deaths

The warden and eight other staff members at a Wisconsin prison face charges in the death of two inmates in what a sheriff called a mockery of the state’s obligation and vow to take good care of those in its custody.

Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt detailed to reporters on Wednesday what he called a litany of failure at Waupun Correctional Institution. He provided details of four inmate deaths since July 2023. Felony charges of misconduct in public office and abuse of residents of penal facilities were filed in two deaths.

“As the sheriff, I am angered at how these men were treated and how they died,” said Schmidt.

Warden Randall Hepp was jailed just hours before the news conference, according to the Associated Press. Hepp is charged with felony misconduct, according to Schmidt, in connection with the death of a mentally troubled inmate who died of malnutrition and dehydration.

“We are operating the oldest prison in Wisconsin in a dangerous manner,” said Schmidt, saying the care of inmates and oversight were shoddy. “There needs to be responsibility from the top down.”

He urged better staffing, training and accountability across the prison system.

The sheriff, who appeared with the district attorney, said Waupun staff in various cases failed to provide adequate checks, medication, food and water. Some records were allegedly falsified.

Prosecutors said the deaths amounted to neglect rather than homicidal intent. Those arrested were Hepp, six correctional workers and two nurses. Most were arrested in one death, rather than both.

Schmidt said the nine accused turned themselves in Wednesday morning and made their first court appearance in the afternoon. They pleaded not guilty, authorities said.

Jail Sgt. Chad Riter told the Associated Press that Hepp’s attorney had visited him, but Riter did not know the attorney’s name. Riter didn’t immediately return a follow-up message inquiring if a reporter could speak with Hepp.

Four inmates have died at Waupun since June 2023, when Dean Hoffman killed himself in solitary confinement, according to the AP. 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. No criminal charges were filed in that case.

Tyshun Lemons and Cameron Williams were found dead at the facility in October, said the AP.

Dodge County Medical Examiner PJ Schoebel said Lemons overdosed on acetyl fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller, and Williams died of a stroke. No charges were filed over Lemons’ death but several prison employees were arrested in Williams’ death, authorities said Wednesday.

Schmidt said Williams had labored breathing and lay on a bed with no movement. Staff yelled and banged on his door “without a response and no action was taken.”

Numerous rounds by staff were skipped or done ineffectively, the sheriff said.

A nurse and correctional officer finally decided Williams’ cell needed to be entered. But an incoming nurse decided there was no medical need for a check, authorities said, adding the inmate was likely under dire medical stress at the time of that decision. He was dead for more than 12 hours before staff learned that, Schmidt said.

Additional charges were brought in the case of Donald Maier, who was found dead at the prison in February. Authorities said the manner of death was homicide and he died because of maltreatment by staff. Hepp is charged in that case.

Maier was in a cell with garbage on the floor and sometimes he went without water because it was cut off at various points for varying reasons, the sheriff said.

The staff failed to feed him nine of 12 meals when he was housed in restrictive housing, the sheriff said. Maier should have been closely monitored and no medical professional made contact except through a cell door.

Schmidt listed medical conditions, dehydration and failure to thrive due to malnutrition as the causes of death.

Dodge County District Attorney Andrea Will said the maximum sentence for a conviction would be 18 months confinement and 24 months of extended supervision.

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, according to AP. Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging 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, reported the Associated Press. Prisoners were being allowed to make phone calls and text using electronic tablets, however.

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.

Hepp announced on May 28 that he planned to retire at the end of June and that Deputy Warden Brad Mlodzik would take over, says the AP.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) and federal authorities are doing their own investigations into conditions at Waupun. Sheriff Schmidt said the federal investigation is not looking specifically into the deaths of the inmates.

“As a result of the DOC’s internal investigations at WCI that initially began in March 2023, over 20 individuals remain under internal investigation,” the Department of Corrections said in its own statement. “An additional nine individuals, against whom criminal charges have not been filed at this time, are no longer employed at the department.”

The DOC said an additional eight people are on administrative leave in connection with the investigations.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Joe Sutton contributed to this story.

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