Trials & Litigation

Wisconsin warden, 8 other staffers charged after series of prisoner deaths

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Sheriff at a podium

“As the sheriff, I am angered at how these men were treated and how they died,” Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt told reporters. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The warden of a troubled Wisconsin prison and eight of his staffers were charged Wednesday following an investigation into a series of prisoner deaths over the past year.

The Waupun Correctional Institution warden, Randall Hepp, was charged with misconduct in public office, a felony, and was arrested hours before Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt (R) had scheduled a news conference on the investigation.

In addition to Hepp, eight staff members at the maximum-security facility face charges related to prisoner abuse, while two face additional charges of misconduct in public office. Those charged include three correctional sergeants, two corrections officers, one correctional lieutenant and two nurses.

They were investigated in connection to the deaths of four prisoners between June 2023 and February of this year and charged in two of them. Schmidt alleged during Wednesday’s news conference that the imprisoned men died because of “a lack of proper care and supervision.”

“There must be accountability for the actions and inactions of state employees,” he said “As the sheriff, I am angered at how these men were treated and how they died.”

The defendants were arraigned Wednesday.

Hepp, who has been the warden at Waupun since 2020, abruptly announced his retirement Tuesday as his facility faced a federal smuggling probe and civil rights lawsuits from prisoners over lockdown conditions.

Waupun, Wisconsin’s oldest active prison, has faced scrutiny over health and safety conditions for more than a year. The facility had been on some level of lockdown since last March, and for a period was permitting prisoners to shower only once a week. In a complaint filed last year, prisoners alleged the lockdown conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Schmidt detailed the findings of his office’s investigations into the deaths of the four men, who ranged in age from 24 to 62.

The first, 60-year-old Dean Hoffman, died by suicide last June. In a lawsuit, Hoffman’s family accused the prison staff of ignoring his acute mental health issues and regularly failing to give him his prescribed medication for bipolar disorder and depression.

Then in October, two prisoners died within weeks of each other. Tyshun Lemons, 30, overdosed on fentanyl early in the month. Weeks later, Cameron Williams died of a stroke after Schmidt said prison workers ignored his deteriorating medical condition and then left him unattended for several hours after he became unresponsive.

“He was dead in cell for over 12 hours until they located him the next morning,” Schmidt said of Williams.

In February, 62-year-old Donald Maier died due to what Schmidt called “maltreatment by staff.” He was found unresponsive in his urine- and garbage-filled cell after having not eaten in several days and after staff observed him behaving strangely, including drinking from the toilet.

Maier was found to have died due to “probable dehydration and failure to thrive due to malnutrition,” according to the criminal complaint, citing the autopsy report from the Fond du Lac County chief medical examiner. His death was ruled a homicide.

The charges are linked to the deaths of Maier and Williams.

Schmidt during Wednesday’s news conference called for Gov. Tony Evers (D) to close or renovate Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institution, another maximum-security prison, saying the facilities are unsafe and plagued by chronic understaffing. Schmidt noted that Evers has previously rebuffed calls for a new prison.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jared Hoy said in a statement Wednesday that the nine charged defendants are either no longer employed by the DOC or are on unpaid administrative leave. Hoy noted that the department and the state will not be providing legal representation for any of the defendants.

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