Investigation highlights conditions at Waupun prison

By: - August 22, 2023 5:30 am
Waupun prison

The Waupun prison sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood (Photo | Wisconsin Examiner)

Conditions at the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), one of the Badger State’s several over-crowded prisons, have become intolerable for the nearly 1,000 people incarcerated there, according to a Wisconsin Watch investigation in partnership with the New York Times. Since prison officials began a lockdown four months ago, people held at Waupun – the state’s oldest prison – have been unable to access the law library or get basic supplies like toilet paper and have complained about bird dropping and blood coating food trays, among other issues.

Since March, people incarcerated at WCI have been largely confined to their cells, according to the report. Those held within the prison’s walls eat their meals in their cells and don’t receive visits from friends or family. Recreation time and access to fresh air have been limited. Kevin Hoffman, deputy director of communications for the Department of Corrections (DOC), said the lockdown was due to safety concerns. “There were multiple threats of disruption and assaultive behavior toward staff or other persons in our care, but there was not one specific incident that prompted the facility to go into modified movement,” Hoffman told Wisconsin Watch. State data shows 100 reported assaults at WCI during the last fiscal year, the investigation found.

Over half of the prison’s staff positions, numbering 284 full-time positions for correctional officers and sergeants, remain unfilled. Meanwhile the population inside Waupun – a maximum security prison designed to hold 882 people – has swelled to 999 as of August 18, when the DOC released its last weekly population report.

Overcrowding is a systemic problem across DOC facilities, regardless of the security level. Two of Wisconsin’s four maximum security prisons, including Waupun, are overcrowded. The Dodge Correctional Institution, designed to hold 1,165, is currently flooded with 1,594 incarcerated people. Every single one of the state’s nine medium security institutions is overcrowded.

In Fox Lake, a prison designed to hold 979 people is holding 1,175. In Kettle Moraine, a medium-security prison is housing 929 people when it was designed to hold 783. The Racine Correctional Institution, designed to hold 1,171, is holding over 1,600 people. A similar story is playing out in some juvenile facilities, with the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility holding 460 people when it was designed to hold just 400. Some minimum security prisons are under similar pressure, including the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Dane County. Designed to hold 409 people, it is currently housing 773.

Older prisons like the one in Waupun have long been at the center of conversations around prison reform and even abolition. In some parts of the state, towns built around prisons like Waupun have become economically dependent on their continued operation. Many of the aging facilities plagued with chronic problems will now face new challenges. Reports of blistering temperatures inside the massive concrete facilities, some of which lack air conditioning, have mounted in recent years.The problem is becoming more pressing due to climate change, which has led to warmer conditions in northern states including Wisconsin.

The dire conditions often compel people held within the state’s prisons to find innovative solutions. One man, having spent nearly 30 years of his life in Wisconsin DOC facilities, recalled having to manually open and close windows or doors to cool an area down. A man who was interviewed for the Wisconsin Watch investigation reported having to cut his clothing up into small pieces to use as toilet paper due to a lack of resources inside the Waupun prison. For incarcerated  people as well as for  guards and staff, it’s hard to ignore the writing on the wall. “The system is breaking, if it’s not broken yet,” Sean Daley, a representative for AFSCME, which advocates for Wisconsin’s prison guards, said in the Wisconsin Watch investigation. “And Waupun can be a glaring example of that under its current state.”



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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.