Wisconsin prison warden charged with misconduct after inmate deaths

By Brendan O'Brien and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -The warden of a Wisconsin state prison was charged on Wednesday with felony misconduct in public office stemming from a local sheriff's investigation into the circumstances of four inmate deaths at the maximum-security facility during the last year.

The warden, Randall Hepp, and eight other employees of the Waupun Correctional Institution charged in the case, were jailed after surrendering to authorities on Wednesday as arranged the day before, according to Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt.

Waupun prison, the state's oldest, was already under federal investigation over suspected staff involvement in a contraband smuggling ring, a separate probe revealed in March by the office of Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.

At a news conference on Wednesday, the sheriff said his department's separate investigation of inmate deaths at Waupun, which houses 1,000 prisoners about 70 miles (113 km) northwest of Milwaukee, found the facility was being operated in "a dangerous and reckless manner."

The deaths of all four men, who were suffering from various medical and mental health issues, reflected what Schmidt described as rampant neglect by prison staff, lax oversight and violations of numerous policies and protocols.

But investigators concluded that wrongdoing by the warden and others rose to the level of criminal behavior in only two of the cases, Schmidt said.

The first of the deaths occurred in June 2023, when prisoner Dean Hoffman killed himself while in solitary confinement, prompting his daughter to sue in February, accusing prison officials of failing to provide him with proper care and medication.

Two other inmates died in October - one from a fentanyl overdose and another from a stroke. The sheriff did not give their names, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identified them as Tyshun Lemons and Cameron Williams, respectively.

In February, a fourth inmate who was supposed to have been kept under around-the-clock video surveillance was found dead in his cell after succumbing to probable dehydration and malnutrition, the sheriff said. Local media identified him as Donald Maier.

The warden and three correctional officers were charged with felony misconduct in connection with the deydration death. One of those officers, three guards and two prison nurses were charged with felony abuse of an inmate stemming from either the dehydration death or the stroke victim.

One of the six correctional officers arrested on Wednesday, a lieutenant, was charged with abuse in both deaths, the sheriff said. According to Schmidt, both inmates had been dead for hours before staff entered their cells.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and two years of extended supervision, according to District Attorney Andrea Will.

The prison in question has been under lockdown since March 2023 because of staff shortages, and a group of inmates has filed a federal lawsuit in Milwaukee alleging that the lockdown amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

In answer to reporters' questions, Schmidt asserted that the lockdown had nothing to do with the inmate deaths, dismissing such suggestions as "bogus."

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Gerry Doyle)