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Scandal at Wisconsin's oldest prison reignites calls to it shut down

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nine employees of a Wisconsin prison face felony charges that allege that their neglect caused the deaths of two inmates. As Sarah Lehr of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, the scandal is reigniting calls to shut down the state's oldest prison.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randy Hepp turned in his resignation last month, shortly before county prosecutors charged him with misconduct over deaths at the prison he ran. Several other Waupun staff are charged with abusing a prisoner. Investigators say, Waupun inmate Donald Maier died of dehydration and malnutrition after staff turned off water to his cell and failed to bring him meals, and they say employees ignored signs of distress before another inmate, Cameron Williams, died of a stroke. Raven Anderson is Williams' mother. She's suing over her son's death and says Waupun's culture is broken.

RAVEN ANDERSON: Everything is wrong. And if they're not going to change it, they need to close it.

LEHR: Parts of the max security prison were built before the Civil War. It's been plagued by faulty plumbing and rodent infestations. Criminal justice reform advocate David Murrell was incarcerated at Waupun in the '90s.

DAVID MURRELL: It's built like a castle. You don't get any sun in the cell hall, right? That in and of itself plays on your psyche.

LEHR: He says Wisconsin needs to reduce its incarcerated population, so Waupun can be shut down without being replaced. But Republican state Senator Andre Jacque says that isn't practical.

ANDRE JACQUE: Especially when we're talking about those with violent infractions that aren't going to be let off their sentence, you know, there's just no way that the math works.

LEHR: He hopes a larger, more modern facility can eventually replace Waupun and another troubled state prison. Republican state Representative Michael Schraa says funding is a barrier. A new prison could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and he says there's jobs at stake if Waupun closes.

MICHAEL SCHRAA: There's, you know, over 300 employees that work there. If it was just shuttered, it would devastate the city.

LEHR: Meanwhile, a federal investigation is ongoing into Waupun staff allegedly smuggling drugs and cellphones, and Wisconsin's Department of Corrections continues its internal inquiry into policy violations related to inmate deaths. DOC leaders say the staff facing criminal charges are either no longer employed by the department or on unpaid leave. They're due in court next month. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Waupun, Wis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Lehr
[Copyright 2024 NPR]