Waupun, Green Bay prisons share familiar problems

An investigation into the deaths of four Waupun Correctional Institution inmates has local and state lawmakers calling for change.

Last week, the Dodge County sheriff announced criminal charges against the former warden and eight other employees for failing to provide basic care to the inmates who died. It sparked a protest outside the prison on Sunday, but lawmakers say it isn't just a Waupun problem.

In 2009 and again in 2020, a pair of state-commissioned studies found the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' maximum security prisons in Waupun and Allouez should close. That discussion is now happening again, though it is unclear where things will go from here.

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Jim Rafter is the village of Allouez president. He sees similarities between what happened in Waupun and what has happened at Green Bay Correctional Institution, which is located within the village.

"We're about the same size community, and we also have the two oldest prisons in Wisconsin," he said.

Green Bay Correctional Institution 

Rafter has been trying to close Green Bay Correctional Institution for eight years.

"It's not a place I'd want to work, and I'm very thankful for the men and women who do, but it's time to get rid of it and do something different," he said.

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Rafter points to reports from a special prosecutor in February, assigned to investigate the May 2023 death of an inmate there. The prosecutor declined criminal charges, but found systemic issues: "The harm being caused to both the inmates and the morale of those that are required to be working in the environment is significant."

"The situation that occurred there in Waupun is obviously tragic, but completely predictable and unfortunately avoidable," said State Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay).

Waupun Correctional Institution

Steffen said both prisons are unsafe and unstable. The two state-commissioned studies published since 2009 found it makes more sense financially to invest in other, newer facilities than continue to pay for upgrades to two prisons that date back to the 1800s.

"We can't just keep on kicking this can down the road. What we're finding is that the problems just keep on compounding themselves and get more expensive," said Steffen.

In 2019, the Wisconsin Legislature allocated $5 million to buy land for a new prison. Gov. Tony Evers used his veto to reallocate that money to the Wisconsin DOC. In a letter last month, he said talks around reform must start with an evidence-based plan to reduce the prison population.