DOC closes cell hall at Waupun prison

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has started the process of closing a cell hall at Waupun Correction Institution, expected to decrease the institution’s population approximately 20%, according to a news release Tuesday, Dec. 1.

A majority of the roughly 220 individuals being moved from the maximum-security institution are classified as medium-security and will be moved to various medium-security DOC institutions across Wisconsin over the next few months, officials said.

“We have been working for more than a year on various ways to better align our institution populations, moving more persons in our care to sites consistent with their security classification. We want more individuals classified as medium security living in medium-security institutions and more individuals classified as minimum security moved into minimum-security institutions.” said DOC Secretary Kevin Carr. “Our adult population is at the lowest point it has been in two decades, which gives us the available space to make these moves.”

DOC officials said the move also helps alleviate long-standing staff vacancy issues at the oldest correctional facility in the state with parts of the building dating back to the 1850s. The proposed decrease in population will lower the number of direct staffed posts by eight per day, and eliminate daily relief positions needed for the cell hall to further reduce staffing needs.

“Because there are several other DOC institutions in Dodge County and the surrounding area, it has been more difficult to find and recruit new, potential employees in that geographic region,” said DOC Division of Adult Institutions Administrator Makda Fessahaye. “We’ve taken many steps to try and address vacancy rates at Waupun. We think closing the cell hall will help address staffing while meeting the alignment goals of our agency.”

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“The vacancy issues at WCI are not tied to any one, particular factor and did not happen overnight, so we cannot expect to take one step and fix them all at once,” Sec. Carr added. “But we think it is a step in the right direction.”

Transfers of the 220 people at WCI are already underway and are expected to continue through the end of February, though COVID-19 outbreaks could lead to delays. As they are transferred to medium-security institutions, there will be corresponding transfers of minimum-classified individuals to minimum-security facilities, officials said.

One organization says the move leaves them with a lot more questions than answers.

"It raised more questions for me than it actually answered," said Peggy West-Schroder with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. "We’re not entirely sure where they would send people removed from Waupun.”

West-Schroder says medium-security prisons where Waupun inmates could be transferred to have COVID outbreaks, while Waupun has zero cases. She says data shows some are operating over their designated capacity. 

“I don’t think transferring people right now is extremely smart," said West-Schroder.

The organization continues to advocate for the release of inmates with little time left in their sentence.

"If we had 5% of the prisoners left in the institution, they’d still be getting COVID-19," said Governor Tony Evers.

Governor Evers said a mass release of inmates wouldn't solve the problem if people in the community don't follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines.