Wrongful death lawsuit filed by family of man who died by suicide in Waupun prison

‘Deliberate indifference’ to mental health, failure to administer psychiatric medication

By: and - February 7, 2024 5:45 am

Dean Hoffmann’s children, Megan Hoffmann Kolb and Barry Hoffmann, talk about their father’s death in Waupun Prison. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The family of a man who died by suicide in Waupun prison last year filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) in federal court Tuesday. The suit alleges that prison staff showed a “deliberate indifference” to the man’s mental health needs while he was incarcerated. 

Last April, as the department began implementing lockdowns at two state prisons, 60-year-old Dean Hoffmann was beginning his journey through the state prison system. The lockdowns restricted movement, recreational time, and visitation rights for thousands of people incarcerated within prisons including the Waupun Correctional Institution. 

Waupun, the oldest prison in the state, is where Hoffmann would spend his final days. After a dispute in June with prison guards over returning to his cell after complaining of threats he’d received from his cellmate, Hoffmann was placed in solitary confinement. 

Waupun prison
Waupun prison gates, with no-visitors sign, in the middle of a residential area in Waupun. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

“As far as conditions go, those cells are not designed for what they’re being utilized for,” Lonnie Story, the attorney representing his adult children, told the Wisconsin Examiner. “In fact, DOC did their own internal assessment of the cells at Green Bay and Waupun, and found them to be substandard, and they’re not even compliant with the standards set forward by the American Disabilities Act, as well as the standards set by the American Correctional Association, and the Bureau of Prisons at the federal level.” 

Story said even many of the ordinary cells have deteriorated and are in an  “inhumane” state because of the prison’s age, leaving the solitary confinement cells in even worse conditions. 

“They have no windows, no way to look outside, so basically they’re put into what for all intents and purposes is a concrete coffin,” Story said, with not even a slot to look through the door. “They’re just put into a hole, a concrete hole and made to sit there and be subjected to whatever good will the guards decide they want to extend, whether it’s distributing food or medications,” Story added.

After nine days, Hoffmann hanged himself using his socks and torn bed sheets.

Waupun prison staff failed to provide Hoffmann with needed medication or adequately check on his status while in solitary confinement, the lawsuit alleges. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week that staff failed to give Hoffman his bipolar and antidepressant medications more than three-quarters of the time. 

“There is no record of Mr. Hoffmann receiving any psychological services while in solitary confinement,” the lawsuit alleges, despite the fact that he was classified by the Department of Corrections as having severe mental health needs. In the early morning hours of June 29, staff also appeared to pass up Hoffman’s solitary cell while handing out medication, the lawsuit alleges. That morning, Hoffmann was supposed to receive Levothyroxine. The medication is used to treat hypothyroidism, one of the medical conditions Hoffmann suffered from along with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, diabetes, and antisocial personality disorder. 

Story called the walk-by of Hoffmann’s cell “egregious,” and said staff were also giving Hoffmann medications meant to be taken at night during the morning, “when or if they were ever given.” 

“They were not given at the proper times, they were not given at the right amounts, and they were not given as prescribed,” Story said. He called this “a clear indication of his medical neglect, and his psychological neglect.” 

When Hoffmann was found by guards on June 29, his body was already cold. In the days prior, according to the lawsuit, an inmate in a nearby cell heard Hoffmann complaining that his medications were not being provided, that he couldn’t sleep, and was hearing voices. Medical staff walked by his cell only to give visual checks, and marked medication as being “refused” by Hoffmann even though it may not have been offered at all, the lawsuit alleges. 

A turbulent journey to the state’s oldest prison

Hoffmann’s course to Waupun began in September 2018, when he walked into his ex-girlfriend’s house uninvited. Over the next several hours, according to the criminal complaint, he tied her up, broke her nose, forced her to write a suicide note, and used her phone to text her adult children, telling them to not come by the house.

Eventually, she convinced Hoffmann to order a pizza and managed to signal the delivery driver to call for help. The aid of the delivery driver sparked the attention of local and national media. The driver, who wore a Taylor Swift concert sweatshirt during a TV interview, got to meet Swift during a concert in Dallas. 

In an interview with the Examiner, Hoffmann’s family — including his ex-wife Deborah Hoffmann, his daughter Megan Hoffmann Kolb and his son Barry Hoffmann — said he had been in the midst of a mental health crisis at the time of the assault. 

Dean Hoffman’s ex-wife, Deborah Hoffman sits outside her Sheboygan County home. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“Possibly suicide is in your plan for me lord if that be the case please make it clear to me or just stop my heart I can feel something in my heart not a pain but a little tightness it does not hurt but I can feel it,” he wrote in a text message to himself two days before he took his ex-girlfriend captive.

His daughter told the Examiner that in the weeks before the assault, Hoffmann had told her he thought he needed to be institutionalized because of his mental state. Instead, he ended up with six felony charges, including kidnapping, false imprisonment and substantial battery. 

Hoffmann spent four years in Sheboygan County jail awaiting trial hoping to win a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental disease. Through the trial process, his mental state fluctuated. 

In Hoffmann’s initial court appearances in 2018, his first attorney, a public defender, questioned his competency to stand trial. 

His family says that at times during his four and a half years in jail, he told them he thought it was the best place for him — saying the consistent medication was helping to stabilize his mental state. Yet he also went through three attorneys and was charged with attempted murder after another inmate accused him of trying to have his ex-girlfriend killed, a charge for which he was later found not guilty. 

After his trial attorney withdrew from the case shortly after he was convicted, the Sheboygan County judge who heard the case ruled that he would represent himself during his sentencing hearing. 

Although Story wasn’t there during Hoffmann’s trial, he sees shortcomings in his representation. 

“My understanding was, from what I had read through in the record, that he was basically mentally incompetent to stand trial. But due to the persuasiveness of the state, and their ‘expert,’ although they even believed that he may have had mental incapacity, it wasn’t to the level that he could not participate in the trial,” Story said. “What’s most disturbing to me is that his attorney withdrew once he was convicted, and he had no attorney by his side when he was sentenced. … He should have had counsel.”

A family demanding answers

At each turn of his case, Hoffmann’s family members say his mental illness was minimized, disregarded or ignored by a system that wasn’t able to help him before he turned violent.

Hoffmann’s family members say they know he had to face the consequences for his actions, yet those consequences shouldn’t have been a death sentence. They also say his story is not out of the ordinary, since  thousands of people are currently under lockdown at Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institution. Many of them are there because of a system unequipped to handle mental illness. 

“He struggled with mental illness, but he always was able to do something about it and get himself corrected,” Deborah Hoffmann told the Examiner. “Until his hands were tied and he goes to Waupun. And by then he has no power to get any help. No power to do anything about it, his hands were tied. They have 100% responsibility to make sure his medical and mental health is taken care of, and they didn’t. He battled that for over 30 years. They had him for two months, and he is dead.”

Under state law, inmates may be kept in solitary confinement, “under the care and advice of a physician.” The lawsuit alleges that Hoffmann wasn’t cared for and that prison staff did not file the necessary paperwork when moving him to solitary. Hoffmann’s prison medical records, obtained by the Examiner through an open records request, show that a psychological screening report was not filed until days after his death. 

Protesters walk into the Department of Corrections offices to demand an end to lockdowns at Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institutions. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“There is no evidence any required medical and/or mental health paperwork was ever filled out during Mr. Hoffmann’s stay in solitary confinement,” the lawsuit states.

During his time in solitary, Hoffmann’s mental health deteriorated. Another inmate, held nearby, said in a recording obtained by the Examiner that Hoffmann told staff he was hearing voices that told him to kill himself. Despite this, records and video evidence show that staff failed to check on him regularly. Around 4 p.m. on June 28, guards dropped off his dinner. After that, no prison staff visually checked on him until he was found dead at 6:45 the next morning. 

The lawsuit details multiple instances in which guards walked past Hoffman’s cell without checking inside. “Even though WCI had a written policy requiring visual supervision of inmates in solitary confinement, assigned correctional officers were often distracted and even sleeping at their posts,” the lawsuit states.

Story said a need to fill vacant staffing positions is creating a bad culture among Waupun’s correctional and medical staff, putting unqualified people into positions that require experience responding to mental health crises. 

“It’s about six weeks of training and that’s it,” he said. “So it’s great that they’re getting more bodies into these facilities. But the training is very low-level and limited. And the ongoing training isn’t there as well.” 

The result, Story said, are staff who “have this absolute deliberate indifference towards the needs of the inmates when they cry out to them, when they tell them they’re suicidal, when they have other issues, medical issues, they’re just completely ignored. Guards walk away from them, sometimes they make fun of them.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said it doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

This week, the department announced that some lockdown restrictions were being loosened to allow more shower access, religious observance and other services. Story, who represents hundreds of prisoners housed in Wisconsin state prisons under lockdown, said that despite the loosening of some restrictions, conditions in the  prisons remain bleak. 

“The most important things, the medical, dental, and psychological aspects of care are not changed at all,” Story said.

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Correction: An original version of this story spelled the family’s name Hoffman, not Hoffmann. 

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

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