Waupun Prison Guards Accused of Abusing Dozens of Inmates
Many of prisoners are from Milwaukee; critics call for an investigation. Part 1 of a series.
Smith, 26, in a federal lawsuit he filed himself, alleged abuse by prison guards. He said they purposely injured his wrists and arms, put him in a choke hold, smashed his face into a cell door and twisted his ankle. Smith insisted he was not resisting.
The defendants denied the allegations and portrayed Smith as the aggressor, saying he “violently pulled” a guard’s hand into his cell, causing injury, and refused to obey directives. Smith, a convicted armed robber, was disciplined over the incident with an additional 11 months in segregation, commonly called solitary confinement.
Smith’s claims of abuse by state correctional officers, though rejected by prison officials, are similar to allegations made by dozens of other inmates at the prison 55 miles northeast of Madison.
In many cases, there are indications that the inmate was injured or received post-incident physical or mental health attention. Some incident reports document the use of tasers, pepper spray, knee strikes, wall slams, takedowns and other measures, but describe these as a necessary response to inmate behavior. Commonly the inmates are disciplined or even charged with crimes over these incidents.
Two-thirds of these allegations of abuse involve a single guard, Joseph Beahm, who, according to the DOC, has worked continuously in the segregation unit at Waupun since October 2006. State prison officials have defended Beahm, and records show he has never been disciplined for improper treatment of inmates. Beahm did not respond to interview requests.
These allegations have been made in federal lawsuits, sworn affidavits, interviews, internal complaints and other prison records, and letters to state officials and Peg Swan, a retired nurse’s aide who corresponds with and advocates on behalf of inmates. Swan has been contacting public officials and others for months, calling attention to the allegations and urging them to investigate.
“I don’t know what has to happen for these guys to be believed,” Swan said.
At least 15 lawsuits have been filed by inmates since 2011 alleging abuse by guards in the segregation unit at Waupun; nine are pending. The other six have been dismissed, but one of those dismissals is being challenged.
University of Wisconsin law professor Walter Dickey, who headed the state prison system from 1983 to 1987, responded with concern to the Center’s findings.
“This looks to be something that really needs to be investigated,” Dickey said. “When you have allegations that are as extensive as these, the continued legitimacy of the system requires that you investigate them with integrity so the public will have confidence in the conclusions that are reached.
“And then you let the chips fall where they fall.”
The state Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, maintains that the inmates making these allegations are lying. While the agency is opening a new central office to investigate complaints and launching a pilot program to equip guards in the segregation unit at Waupun with cameras, it denies there is a particular problem there.
“It is not uncommon for some of our inmates to embellish stories or create issues to draw attention to themselves and/or obtain services from the public,” wrote James Schwochert, the DOC’s assistant administrator of the adult institutions, in a letter to Swan in February. He said Waupun has “zero tolerance for any harassment or intimidation of inmates.”
Waupun Warden William Pollard made a similar point, writing in response to a request for comment: “Waupun is a maximum security facility that houses a large concentration of some of the state’s most violent criminals. In some cases, inmates make allegations in an attempt to manufacture lawsuits, gain public sympathy and get attention.”
DOC secretary Ed Wall declined an interview request. But he did provide a written statement.
“Within the Department of Corrections, all allegations of assault are taken seriously. Every allegation of assault that is brought to the attention of staff is investigated,” Wall said. “The Dodge County Sheriff’s (Office) routinely investigates allegations. During the past several years, there have been no substantiated allegations of staff on inmate abuse at Waupun Correctional Institution.”
A problematic structure
The wave of allegations of abuse at Waupun comes during a time of growing national concern about the use of segregation for inmates, especially those with mental illness. Former Wisconsin DOC Secretary Rick Raemisch is leading an effort to reduce or eliminate the use of solitary confinement in Colorado, whose prison system he now oversees.
In 2010, in response to an inmate lawsuit, the state agreed to modest changes in the segregation unit at Waupun, such as new windows and dimmer night lighting. But inmates there are still often confined to their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day, a federal judge noted. The cells feature concrete and steel furnishings, one small window and a steel trap door through which food and medication are passed. A regular segregation cell measures 6 feet 2 inches by 12 feet.
Wall, citing the growing national debate, in April sent a memo to DOC staff indicating his desire to rethink the use of segregation in Wisconsin. “Are we placing inmates in segregation because we are mad at them (or) … out of a sense of retribution?” he asked. “And if we are, does this help our inmates or does it make us any safer?”
Wall said the DOC would, over the coming year, “be interacting with other (state correctional systems), scientists, scholars and mental health professionals from across the country in an attempt to determine how best to deal with this challenging population.” The goal is to have a revised policy by January.
The segregation unit at Waupun has an operating capacity of 180 inmates. As of early July, it housed 131, more than 10 percent of the prison’s overall population of about 1,250 inmates. Segregation is commonly used as a punishment for misbehavior.
Dickey, who now works for the UW Athletic Department, acknowledges that the kind of inmates who end up in segregation are not easy to deal with. He recalls that when he was corrections chief, he wanted to override seniority system rules to prevent guards from working in segregation for extended periods, which he believes is “not healthy,” but the unions representing prison guards rejected this.
Segregation, said Dickey, “brings out the worst in everybody. You’ve got a structure that starts a human dynamic between people that’s destructive.”
Eugene Braaksma, a state psychologist who worked at Waupun from 2006 to 2012, agreed. He cited a documentary, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” about a famous 1971 study in which students randomly selected to play the role of prison guards quickly became abusive toward students assigned to be inmates.
“There’s no way to have a power structure where one party has all of the power and the other party has none where abuses don’t happen,” Braaksma said. “It’s a structure that’s really prone to difficulties.”
Psychologist ‘troubled’ by incidents
Braaksma said he never directly witnessed the abuse of inmates and would not have tolerated it. But he did see “things that troubled me,” including inmate injuries he thought were highly suspicious. “Certainly things get out of hand at times.”
Generally, Braaksma said, these suspicious injuries involved bruising that staff attributed to an inmate resisting. He noted that “resisting is an infraction that would lead to getting a ticket and extra segregation time. But for some reason there would not be a ticket.” He saw this as a sign that the officers did not want to explain their actions.
Also, Braaksma said, “There was at least one time I recall when an incident would have been on security camera data but the data somehow got erased.”
State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who formerly chaired a state legislative committee that dealt with corrections, still gets letters from inmates with all manner of complaints, including allegations of abuse. She said a significant number of these have come from the segregation unit at Waupun. Serious complaints, Taylor added, “seemed to rise in 2013.”
While Taylor does not believe the problems within the state’s prison system are unique to Waupun, “There’s no question to me that Waupun brings some of the largest challenges.” It is an aging facility and incarcerates some of the state most “hard core” inmates, she said.
“If we can address the issues at the level of Waupun,” Taylor said, “it would trickle everywhere else, to the places that are not as bad.”
Swan agreed, saying that addressing the problems at Waupun would go a long way toward building “a system of accountability” for the prison system as a whole.
Both Swan and Taylor fault the prison system’s current complaint process, because it is run by prison staff. “To have an independent complaint process would revolutionize the system,” Swan said. Taylor recommends bringing outsiders into the process, to avoid having “the fox run the henhouse.”
Swan also called for Waupun to add mental health resources, rotate guards out of the segregation unit every three months, and train guards better on how to deal humanely with difficult and mentally ill inmates.
No carrot for good behavior
This summer, the DOC is conducting a three-month pilot project at Waupun, in which segregation unit officers wear cameras on their chests or eyeglasses to record their interactions. DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab said that Waupun correctional staff “requested the opportunity to pilot the cameras due to the high number of false accusations.”
The DOC is also creating a new statewide office to oversee professional standards and allegations of staff misconduct. The new Office of Special Operations, Staab said, would allow instances of wrongdoing to be “corrected in a more timely manner.” Also, with this team in place, “Staff falsely accused can be exonerated more quickly and returned to work.”
Brian Cunningham, a Waupun correctional officer who heads the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement union, said working in segregation is an exceptionally difficult job in an increasingly difficult profession.
“We are under constant, constant stress,” said Cunningham, speaking in his capacity as a union official. “I think it’s gotten way more dangerous.”
A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Programs Diagnostic Center found that correctional officers have high rates of suicide, substance abuse and early mortality relative to other professions — all related to on-the-job stress.
As for job danger, the DOC has tallied that from mid-2012 to mid-2013 there were 351 assaults, attempted assaults and assault-related injuries to state prison staff, who number about 10,000 statewide. More than two-thirds of these assaults occurred in segregation units.
Cunningham said the state’s truth-in-sentencing law, implemented in 1999, and a 2011 bill signed by Gov. Scott Walker to end early release for some inmates made matters worse by removing one of the tools correctional officials had for maintaining order within prisons.
“We took away the carrot for good behavior and we replaced it with nothing,” he said. From the inmates’ point of view, “I’m doing 15 years regardless of what I do, so I act like an idiot inside the institution all day long.”
Meanwhile, diminished pay and benefits have led to less-experienced staff: “You now have 18-year-old kids with zero life experience dealing with 30-year-old convicts,” he said.
But while agreeing that the pressures of the job have risen, Cunningham disputes suggestions of widespread abuse. “I will tell you — categorically, lie-detector test — that I have personally never in my career seen with my own eyes an inmate being abused,” the 20-year DOC veteran said.
Dodge County Sheriff Patricia Ninmann said her office has a full-time detective assigned to state prisons in Dodge County, including Waupun. A list from 2013 shows that virtually all of the battery and assault investigations at Waupun involve inmates attacking guards or other inmates.
Ninmann confirmed that the detective “has not had any substantiated allegations of staff on inmate abuse at Waupun.”
‘Corroboration is hard’
Dickey, who served as prison chief under Democratic Gov. Tony Earl, recalls that inmates at Waupun rioted in January 1983 after the suicide of an inmate who was allegedly beaten by guards. In June of that year, a federal judge ruled that the prison’s use of Mace violated inmates’ rights.
“I guess an awful lot of what was going on there 30 years ago is going on now,” said Dickey, who made sweeping policy changes in response to the ruling, even though the decision was later overturned by an appellate court.
Gary Hamblin, who served as DOC secretary from early 2011 to late 2012 under Walker, was surprised to learn of large-scale allegations of abuse at Waupun. He does not recall any such allegations when he was chief, and was under the impression that “conditions were actually improving at Waupun.”
Kit Kerschensteiner, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the allegations of abuse at Waupun are “occurring with such frequency” that they could merit an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department under the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, which was previously invoked to bring about major changes in mental health care and discipline at the state women’s prison at Taycheedah.
“We will continue to help individual inmates with their complaints, but we have a peashooter, and they have a cannon,” she said.
With complaints brought by inmates, a key issue is credibility. Kerschensteiner suggested that abuse occurs in part because guards know they have the upper hand in any disagreement.
“Regardless of what actually happened, it always boils down to, who is going to be believed: a reputable guard or a convicted felon?” she said. “Corroboration is hard.”
Of course some inmates, being criminals, often hardened and lifelong ones, tell lies. But correctional officers sometimes do, too.
“Some staff cover for one another,” said Jeff Endicott, who worked at Waupun as clinical services supervisor in the early 1980s under Dickey and later was warden at Columbia Correctional and Redgranite state prisons. “So when you’re doing an investigation, it’s difficult to affirm a complaint or make a judgment in favor of an inmate, unless there is other corroborating evidence.”
Endicott said when he was investigating allegations against staff at Columbia for making racial comments, “there were many people who denied it happened, including witnesses to the behavior.” He said the experience left him “shocked.”
Earlier this year, according to reports obtained by the Center, Waupun officials investigated allegations that a segregation unit supervisor made a rude comment about a mental health worker. The complaint says this was “stated loudly” in the presence of other officers.
The security supervisor admitted to making the remark. But all seven correctional officers interviewed as potential witnesses said they either did not hear or could not recall if this was said.
Smith faces new charges
Marvin Smith, at his family’s home in Milwaukee in late March, is one of at least 15 Waupun inmates who have filed lawsuits since 2011 accusing guards of physical or psychological abuse.
For his part in the events of Jan. 3, 2013, Marvin Smith was found guilty of a major offense and sentenced to an additional 330 days in segregation. He asked at the disciplinary hearing why his injuries were more severe than those of the guard whose hand he allegedly grabbed. The question was “deemed irrelevant by the hearing officer.”
Smith was convicted of three counts of armed robbery in 2005, served his time and was released from prison Dec. 31. Of his nearly seven years at Waupun, he said about five and a half were served in segregation. He takes an almost philosophical view of inmate abuse, saying some guards seem to prefer their jobs in the prison to their lives outside.
“Because when they come here, they have authority, they have power,” Smith said. “They have so much control to repress humans … (under) conditions where there’s nothing we can do about it, but go to the courts.”
Smith, 26, made these remarks in an interview in late March. He was living in Milwaukee with relatives and working a factory job, while remaining on extended supervision. When he lifted his pant leg to show his scars, he also revealed an electronic monitoring device. He said he was determined to press on with his federal lawsuit, for the sake of those still at Waupun.
A month later, Smith was arrested again, charged with three felonies for allegedly discharging a firearm in a school zone in Milwaukee. On April 30, according to the criminal complaint, he and another man began shooting at each other; no one was hurt. He faces up to 30 years in prison.
After his arrest, Smith missed a deadline for responding to a defense motion in his lawsuit. The state, citing this failure, asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. In mid-June, the judge granted this request.
The lawsuit never reached a determination on Smith’s allegations.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.