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Months-­Long Wisconsin Prison Lockdown Prompts Lawsuits

A federal lawsuit filed on October 26, 2023, seeks class-­action status for a group of Wisconsin prisoners challenging poor healthcare and conditions of confinement in the state Department of Corrections (DOC), resulting from “a prolonged, unnecessary and unexplained lockdown” that has so far lasted seven months at Waupun Correctional Institution (CI).

Faced with overcrowded and understaffed conditions at Waupun CI and Green Bay CI, DOC has kept both prisons under “modified movement” since late March 2023, with no visitors and limited time out of cell for prisoners. DOC spokesman Kevin Hoffman said a third prison in Stanley is under restrictions, too, but some access to recreation and visitors remains. The prisoners are represented in their suit by attorney Lonnie D. Story of Daytona Beach, Florida. See: Anderson v. Wisc. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:23-­cv-­01430.

Meanwhile, the state is isolating more prisoners in “restrictive housing” (RH) as DOC’s staff vacancy rate soared to 32% in October 2023. At 54%, Waupun CI had the highest rate, while also reporting two deaths during the long lockdown. The October 2023 death of Tyshun L. Lemons, 30, remains under investigation, though the complaint notes it may be a suicide.

Another lawsuit has been filed by the family of Dean Hoffman, 60, whose said his June 2023 suicide was both predictable and preventable, given that there is “no record” that the mentally ill prisoner “receiv[ed] any psychological services while in solitary confinement.” Story, who is also representing the family, likened the RH cell where Hoffman was held to a “concrete coffin.” See: Hoffman v. Wisc., USDC (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 1:23-­cv-­00553.

DOC says that 44% of staff positions are vacant at Green Bay CI; the number was 47% at Columbia CI and 48% at Dodge CI. The prisons are overcrowded by some 400 prisoners at Dodge CI and more than 200 at Green Bay CI. The maximum-­security lockup for women, Taycheedah CI, was 200 prisoners over capacity and operating with just two-­thirds of its needed staff. Amid these conditions, prisoner Cindy Schulz-­Juedes, 68, was found unresponsive in her cell and declared dead on July 19, 2023. Fellow prisoner Taylor Sanchez, 27, was charged with her murder on September 1, 2023.

The lockdowns have resulted in mandatory overtime for guards, many working several 16-­hour days weekly. Medical and mental health care delivery has slowed for prisoners, many of whom resort to self-­harm to see a doctor more quickly. DOC has put more prisoners in “disciplinary” RH and, when that fails, in “administrative” RH. Both mean isolation and loss of privileges in conditions similar to solitary confinement. There were 957 prisoners held in the two types of RH in August 2023, the most since May 2019.

Of that number, about 12%—122 prisoners—had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (SMI). At state prisons in Columbia, Green Bay and Waupun, the number of prisoners with SMI is the highest since record-­keeping began in 2019. Underscoring how dangerous this situation is, a 2016 report by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found a significant correlation between restrictive housing and prisoner suicides. See: Restrictive Housing in the U.S.—Issues, Challenges, and Future Directions, NIJ (Nov. 2016).

Unsurprisingly, DOC ended its fiscal year on June 30, 2023, with 378 reported assaults or attempted assaults on staff, the highest level in 10 years. State lawmakers are throwing more money at the problem, hiking hourly pay for guards from $22 to $33. But for now the state is apparently using lockdowns to deal with overcrowding and understaffing.

As if conditions weren’t bad enough, Green Bay CI also suffered a rodent infestation earlier in 2023. Prisoners at the maximum-­security lockup reported using rolled-­up towels to keep mice from running under cell doors. Hoffman said the problem was now under control.  


Additional sources: Fon du Lac Reporter, Green Bay Press-­Gazette, New York Times, WEAU

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Related legal case

Anderson v. Wisc. Dep’t of Corr.