Wisconsin prison problems; former guards, inmate families testify

State lawmakers heard from family members of the incarcerated, former employees and consultants on problems within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections on Tuesday, June 9.

It comes about a month after a warden and eight staff members were criminally charged at Waupun Correctional Institution.

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Problems ‘everywhere’

Before the Assembly Corrections Committee in Madison, Megan Hoffman-Kolb insisted her father, Dean Hoffman, should still be alive.

"In one of the last letters my dad wrote while at Waupun, he stated, 'I may deserve to be punished, but I don't deserve this. It is really bad in here. Really bad,’" Hoffman-Kolb said.

The 60-year-old, who she said struggled with his mental health, died by suicide at Waupun Correctional Institution in June 2023. No criminal charges have been filed in his death, but his daughter remains determined to see accountability.


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"I found that they had missed his medications more often than they gave them to him," she said. "He had no psych exam, and he was ignored when he asked for help."

Those who spoke detailed allegations of sexual harassment by supervisors, retaliation against prison guards who dare to speak out and abuse of inmates.

"They don't have a voice," former DOC employee Paul Westerhaus said. "They've been silenced, or worse, ignored."

Many called for creating an independent ombudsman office to investigate complaints, or hiring consultants to make recommendations on next steps.

"You've got some serious issues on all fronts," Creative Corrections CEO Stephen Spaulding said.

Prison deaths

Two teenagers imprisoned at the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile facility – one 16-year-old and one 17-year-old – have been charged in connection with a June 24 fight that left counselor Corey Proulx dead. According to the criminal complaints, one of the inmates punched Proulx, who fell and hit his head on concrete pavement. He was 49.

Waupun Correctional Institution

Earlier in June, prosecutors charged Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp and eight members of his staff with various felonies, including misconduct and inmate abuse, in connection with two inmates’ deaths at the maximum security facility since last year. One of the inmates died of a stroke and the other died of dehydration, according to court documents.

Hepp retired in June and is scheduled to appear in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing on the charges.

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Two other inmates have died at Waupun over the last year. No one has been charged in those deaths, but federal investigators are probing a suspected smuggling ring at the prison.

Megan Kolb, the daughter of Waupun inmate Dean Hoffmann, who killed himself in solitary confinement in 2023, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in February alleging that Waupun staff failed to provide her father with adequate mental health care and medication.

Kolb testified Tuesday that it has been an "agonizing quest" to get her father’s medical records, which she said showed he wasn’t given medicine he needed and his concerns were ignored.

"My father's death could have been prevented," she said.

Ongoing challenges

The juvenile prison has been under intense scrutiny for years amid abuse allegations and lawsuits by people incarcerated there. In 2017, the state paid more than $25 million to settle a lawsuit and a federal judge appointed a monitor to oversee conditions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. The monitor, who continues to report on conditions at the prison, has said the situation has been improving.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections was not invited to testify at Tuesday's hearing, Secretary Jared Hoy said in a letter to the committee. However, he said the department was listening and "will continue to take action for the betterment of our institutions, safety of our staff and the wellbeing of those who are in our care"

Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC)

Hoy described the past several weeks as "challenging" and said the agency continues to improve safety, including through additional training and security audits. He also said the department is working to bring in a national consulting and management organization to examine the state’s restrictive housing and other practices and recommend improvements.

Waupun, the state's oldest prison, built in the 1850s, has long been a target for closure amid deterioration, extended lockdowns and staffing shortfalls.

DOC data shows nearly 46% of jobs at Waupun are open, which is up 2% over the last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.